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January / February 2012
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Student entrepreneurs develop tech businesses—in just fifty-four hours

The snack station looks like it might collapse. Coffee, bagels, and pastries share a flimsy card table with Sara Lee crumb cakes, boxes of chocolate chip cookies, king-sized bags of chips, and gallons of sugary soda. And that's only breakfast, meant to fuel the sleepless, hyper-creative brains of forty budding tech entrepreneurs.

Welcome to 3 Day Startup, an entrepreneurial event where Cornell students aim to develop business plans for viable tech companies. With the help of the twelve entrepreneurs and computer experts serving as volunteer mentors, participants have just fifty-four hours over one weekend in early November to create demos and pitch presentations. On Sunday night, each team will present its nascent business to a panel of venture capitalists, angel investors, and tech entre preneurs that may eventually invest real money in their projects.

Within hours of convening in Upson Hall on Friday afternoon, the participants had come together in brainstorming groups based on their strengths and interests. In one corner of the room, three students—Tim Novikoff, a PhD candidate in applied math; information science major Lori Ho '12; and computer science major Eugene Doan '12—discuss Pocket Studio, a website that would allow users to edit concert videos from the footage of multiple iPhones. A large roll of paper, anchored by two cups of coffee, quickly fills up with sketches and ideas.

Ho begins creating a slideshow for their presentation that night, using Adobe Illustrator to sketch a crowd waving smartphones. An aspiring specialist in user-friendly site navigation, she is one of only a handful of designers at 3 Day Startup. "Think of a website as a building," she explains. "I'm the person figuring out how to make that building pretty and easy to walk through, but I'm not actually building it. I tell our coders what our site should look like, and they tell me what's actually possible." Computer science major Harrison Wong '12 comes by, munching a powdered-sugar donut. Overhearing Novikoff and Doan discussing a revenue model, he suggests adding a watermark to the free version of the compiled videos. "That's a great idea," Novikoff says. "Then, either they're paying us for their video or they're sending their entire social network a five-minute commercial for our company."

'It's all about the 'P words'—passion, perseverance, persistence, and prescience.'Founded in Austin in 2008, 3 Day Startup is a nonprofit that sponsors entrepreneurial "boot camps" at some two dozen U.S. and international universities and companies each year. This event, Cornell's first, was spearheaded by Sohan Jain '12, a computer science major and former Facebook intern. He and nine other student volunteers screened more than 150 applicants before selecting forty students from such fields as computer science, business, law, and design. Participants formed groups with representatives from each discipline, and by Friday night they had brainstormed fourteen ideas to be pitched to an audience of students, entrepreneurs, and computer scientists.

After their five-minute presentations, the pitchers face questions and comments—some rather heated—from the audience. When MBA student Bill Cullen proposes an app that would open all of a user's favorite websites at once on a public computer, he is hit by a chorus of voices shouting versions of, "Don't you know that already exists?" His idea didn't make it through the night, but six others did; the students then formed groups around the projects that most interested them. Pocket Studio remained in the running—along with Active Learning, a training app for athletes; Redfo, a service that allows users to automate phone orders to restaurants; AdPear, a mobile advertising platform in which two ads are shown side by side; 4th Wall, a customizable interface for video-game developers; and Crowdbox.in, a crowd-sourced digital jukebox.

The next day, after a long night of research and coding, the teams are ready to face 3 Day Startup's twelve mentors. Students, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and computer engineers alike munched on subs and sucked down Monster energy drinks as each team pitched its business plans and received suggestions. Unlike most other teams, the students behind AdPear had created a near-complete business plan. Philip Zigoris '03, a Facebook engineer and one of the program's mentors, chimes in when AdPear team leader Paul Yang '12 suggests collecting data on users' choices between a Coke ad and a Pepsi ad. "Do you really think two competing brands will want to advertise next to each other?" he asks. "I know on TV, Ford and Chevy often won't allow their commercials to be shown in the same time slot." Yang nods appreciatively and makes a note on the whiteboard behind him, where his team's charts, lists, and sketches stretch across the room.

Next door, Mike Digman '11, a PhD candidate in computer science, and computer engineering major Ranjay Krishna '13 work on plans for 4th Wall. They've been developing a business model, but mentor Rhett Weiss, executive director of Cornell's Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute, encourages them to create a working demo before Sunday night. "It's all about the 'P words,'" he says later. "Passion, perseverance, persistence. And prescience; being able to see where this opportunity can go."

The 4th Wall team takes his advice, creating a video game that integrates Jain's Facebook network during play. The other teams offer similarly interactive experiences for the final presentations; audience members are invited to choose a mobile ad experience on AdPear, place an order on Renfo, and make song suggestions via Crowdbox.in. MBA student Arthur Soroken had abandoned the jukebox app when it didn't garner enough interest after his Friday night pitch. But he revisited the idea on Saturday night, and—with only one teammate—created a working Web application and business plan by Sunday. "We picked it up at 11 p.m. and coded it until the crack of dawn," Soroken says. "I learned this weekend that sometimes, to get things done, you just don't sleep."

— Amanda First '12

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