Shark Bait : BYU Entrepreneurship Programs Help Ideas Become Reality

Ice cream frozen with liquid nitrogen. A customizable shelf for school lockers. A device that cleans cellphones. A nightlight for the toilet. While these best-selling products cover a range of consumer needs, each of the companies started in the same place: Brigham Young University.

Not only were these businesses created at BYU, they were all featured on ABC’s Shark Tank, prompting celebrity investors on the popular reality show to wonder what the university is doing to encourage innovative, entrepreneurial thinking.

Start with vision

Part of the credit can be given to Scott Petersen, executive director at BYU’s Rollins Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology. With a passion for entrepreneurship, Petersen came to the university in 2010 and helped rebrand the department’s mission. He wanted to create a hand-up, not a hand-out, system that developed character and taught students to put success in perspective.

Petersen says when men and women of faith and integrity tap into values learned in the predominant religious culture, including hard work, perseverance and dedication, they can create a business vision that leads to success.

“Once you have a vision, and the CEO carries that vision to the hearts and minds of its people, you’re going to cross the River Jordan and get to the Promised Land … It starts with having smart, motivated, talented, principled people. It takes the A team to create a successful company. The difference between A and B players is exceedingly wide.”

Ditch the old ideas

One of the most controversial aspects of Petersen’s method was to ditch the business plan competition, considering business plans to be useless and obstructive in producing results. Instead, the school teaches lean start-up, a method that involves a build-measure-learn process.

Petersen says lean start-up is more efficient, as business leaders don’t waste time writing a business plan full of “contrived, nonsensical garbage.”

Each year, the Rollins Center hosts the months-long Miller Competition Series, an entrepreneurial battleground where ideas are pitched, products are developed and young leaders are given the chance to create the company of their dreams.

Sponsored by the Larry H. and Gail Miller Family Foundation, phase one of the series is the Big Idea Pitch. Students are mentored, given feedback and judged in several categories including scalability, feasibility, problem identifying/solving and innovation. The top 25 ideas are given prize money and move on to the next round.

The winning teams take their idea into the Business Model Competition, where the idea is tested with consumers and altered until it meets an actual need. Part of the competition is documenting the validation process by tracking the number of people talked to, the evolution of the product and how the final creation solves a real-world problem. The top 10 teams share a $20,000 prize purse, and the top 18 teams proceed to the next round.

“The competition usually starts with more than 500 ideas and gets edited down to 30,” Petersen says. “Winners get prize money and mentors are assigned to all the teams. It’s a controlled chaos that gets the idea pot stirring.”

The final phase of the competition is the New Venture Challenge. After months of study and preparation, the teams present their product to judges, with the top eight teams awarded $15,000 and accepted into the Founders’ Launchpad Accelerator, a summer-long program to fine-tune their companies. Teams participating in the Launchpad are given free office space and personal mentors, and attend workshops that help them prepare for dealing with venture capitalists and angel investors.

During the series, students prepare and present a speed proposal, showcase their business in less than 30 minutes and create a six-minute video pitch. The entire competition is months of hard, innovative work that Petersen says prepares young entrepreneurs for success in the real world.

It also prepares them to pitch their ideas in front of a global audience on Shark Tank.

Under the spotlight

When Wes Barnes and Dan LaPorte walked onto the Shark Tank set in 2015, they’d already been through a variety of BYU competitions. They hadn’t won them all, but they’d learned valuable skills.

Their product was PhoneSoap, a charger that kills germs on mobile devices using UV light. Before appearing on the show, PhoneSoap had already raked in more than $500,000 in sales.

The show’s producers spent a lot of time with the partners helping craft a compelling pitch that would be interesting on TV. They felt ready to rock the negotiations with the show’s investors and looked forward to getting a celebrity investment to take their product to the next level.

Finally, it was show time.

“It’s very scary, even though they prep you,” Barnes says. “It was a long walk to the sharks. You have to stand on your cue and stay there for one or two minutes, silently staring down the Shark Tank stars.”

The partners walked away from the show with an offer from Lori Greiner: $300,000 for 10 percent of the company. With Greiner’s help, PhoneSoap has become a top performer on QVC, and the company is expanding into the medical market to sterilize tablets and other mobile devices used in hospitals.

Both Barnes and LaPorte credit BYU’s programs for preparing them for success.

“BYU has opportunities for entrepreneurs to take an idea and work through the process,” LaPorte says. “The program is set up in a way that doesn’t stifle creation.”

Barnes says most business leaders, like angel investors and venture capitalists, think externally, asking what’s in it for me. “At BYU, the focus is on building the individual. We learn not to waste time launching a product that won’t be successful. It’s about enabling success, both personal and professional.”

As BYU-born companies like SubZero Ice Cream, FiberFix, Scan, Cerebral Success, Lockerbones, PhoneSoap and IllumiBowl continue to amaze celebrity investors, Petersen continues to inspire the next group of entrepreneurs ready to take on the world.

“I consider entrepreneurship to be vital to global economic success,” he says. “If we could increase the Global Entrepreneur Indicator by 10 percent in the country, it would increase the GDP by up to $19 trillion.”

That’s a lot of shark bait.