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7/25/11 - MSU student business start-ups sweep New Venture Challenge

When the Mississippi Technology Alliance recently hosted the business competition New Venture Challenge 2011, the top teams in the student division all had one thing in common--leadership by Mississippi State University student entrepreneurs.

In the challenge, participants competed for kudos from judges--and cash investments to help establish their new companies. Tasha Bibb, MTA's entrepreneurial development manager and program director for New Venture Challenge, said MSU student teams swept others in their division.

The annual competition evaluates business plans in marketing, finance, management, and products or technology to help aspiring entrepreneurs launch companies with obvious potential for success.

Senior William R.E. "Robbie" Spears of Meridian won first place and a $3,000 award for his company, The Juliet Collective. An MSU interdisciplinary studies major, Spears is founder and CEO of the company, which produces artfully crafted musical electronics, such as guitar pedals and amplifiers.

Spears said he always loved music and electronics, but never focused on business until he began working with MSU's Entrepreneurship Center, through which his longtime passion began to transform from a hobby to a serious business venture.

He said winning the New Venture Challenge has caused his company's employees to "put their shoulders to the wall" in preparation for the National Association of Music Merchandisers trade show, an industry event he hopes will spur the business to the next level of success.

Innometrix, a biomedical device company, won second place with the design GynMech, which creates a diagnostic data set to provide a structural analysis of the female pelvic floor. Company leaders are Benjamin Weed, an MSU biomedical engineering doctoral student, and Ali Borazjani, who earned an MSU bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering in May.

To begin their company, the two students combined efforts with a vision of helping women by predicting the onset of pelvic organ prolapse, a medical condition with symptoms such as incontinence. Weed and Borazjani also are collaborating to begin a separate non-profit organization to help provide medical supplies to South African hospitals and medical clinics. Innometrix will utilize the $2,000 cash prize for further development and testing of their medical device.

Neimaj, LLC, a company which designs and manufactures eco-friendly footwear, earned the third place award. Jamien A. Sills of Starkville, an MSU graduate student pursuing a master's of business administration degree, founded Neimaj to offer a new line of work shoes that Sills says are safer, more comfortable, and more stylish than those offered by competitors. His company's $1,000 cash prize will help manufacture a run of shoes for market validation purposes.

Jesus J. Valdez, another MBA graduate student who works with Spears as The Juliet Collective's chief marketing officer, said each winning team was cultivated by MSU's Entrepreneurship Center. "The Entrepreneurship Center held numerous meetings with each team to help refine their business plans," he explained.

"Professors from many disciplines lent their time to help students write financial statements, form marketing plans, refine brands and practice presentations," he said. "All the winners agree that the assistance they received from the Entrepreneurship Center was absolutely invaluable."

Valdez became involved with Spears and The Juliet Collective through the Entrepreneurship Center, which recently merged with the Office of Technology Commercialization to create the new Office of Entrepreneurship and Technology Transfer.

Gerald Nelson, OETT director, works with both students and faculty entrepreneurs on a regular basis. He said an advisory board made up of entrepreneurs-in-residence, along with faculty members from both the College of Business and Bagley College of Engineering, meets almost weekly to take beginning entrepreneurs through the steps of forming and writing their business plans.

"We've brought in seasoned entrepreneurs who are loyal and passionate about MSU, along with outstanding faculty who are experts in the fields of marketing, management and engineering," Nelson said. "We mentor these start-up companies from the very beginning," adding that university alumni represent a major asset, not only when serving as entrepreneurs-in-residence, but also as "angel investors."

Nelson said the office "routinely facilitates presentations of new up-and-coming companies and technologies for MSU angel investors, not only to potentially invest in, but also to mentor and network with as these companies mature."

He said the mentoring and vetting process cultivates an environment of support for entrepreneurs along with practical help down the path of launching a new venture.

Nelson said stories of entrepreneurship development are win-win scenarios when an invention leads to innovation.

"Many great inventions come out of research, but it's when they are implemented in such a way that the product or technology benefits society and meets a market need that they truly become innovations," Nelson said.

For more information about MSU's Office of Entrepreneurship and Technology Transfer, visit

ALLISON MATTHEWS | University Relations

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