U-M Student Group, MPowered, Gears Up for 1,000 Pitches, Looks to Help Build Startup Ecosystem

A culture of entrepreneurial innovation might not be something one would expect to find in a rust belt state like Michigan, but one student group at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is trying to change that.

MPowered Entrepreneurship aims to cultivate and support student entrepreneurs in hopes that they turn their ideas into successful startups, and ideally keep those businesses—and the talent that comes with them—in the state. The group is gearing up this week for its hallmark program, 1,000 Pitches, which asks students to pitch ideas for startup companies via video, and awards $1,000 to the winning ideas.

Two University of Michigan students founded the group in 2007 after a trip to Silicon Valley where they saw people “spinning off ideas and businesses left and right,” according to Ankit Mehta, a junior majoring in communications, and the president of MPowered. They came back to Michigan with the goal of creating a similar startup community in the state.

Mehta says the group is part of a “strategic move” to try to expand the budding startup culture in Ann Arbor so that it’s on par with other startup hubs like Silicon Valley, Boston, and New York. “How do we build the supportive community where somebody won’t want to go to the East or West Coast, but they want to stay in Ann Arbor?” Mehta says. That is one of the most important questions the group tries to answer.

And according to Mehta, it all starts by creating a “cultural movement” on campus that encourages students to think like self-starters instead of continuing on the educational path that’s expected of them. “During the job crisis for example, a lot of seniors I knew actually tried to continue with their masters degrees because they couldn’t find jobs,” he says. “Why not start your own company?”

Though starting a campus movement from scratch may seem like a daunting task, MPowered has already had some success. In 2009, the organizers received 2,165 entries for their flagship competition, 1,000 Pitches—about double the 1,018 entries in its previous, inaugural year.

The competition asks students to submit startup ideas via video that fall into one of 10 categories, ranging from consumer products to software development. A panel of judges chooses a winner from each category to receive $1,000 to move forward with their idea. The competition starts tomorrow, and students can submit pitches up until Nov. 19. The winners in each category will be announced on Dec. 4.

1,000 Pitches has already “created its own brand name” on campus, according to Rachel Barch, a sophomore in Michigan’s College of Engineering and MPowered’s program director for the competition. But this year, the group is trying to increase awareness of the contest through social media. “Once you submit your pitch…it automatically goes on to our YouTube channel so everyone can see your ideas,” Barch said. She added that those videos also get published to the group’s Facebook page.

Mehta said this year the group is hoping to “increase this conversion rate from after students pitch the idea, to take the next step to starting a business.” One of the ways they’re doing this is through a peer mentorship program that pairs students who have viable pitches with more experienced students who know what it takes to start a business.

While the organizers would like to see more pitches turn into real businesses, MPowered already has a number of success stories to tell. One of them is “MPowered student” Allen Kim, a finalist in Entrepreneur Magazine’s College Entrepreneur of the Year Award, for his company that allows families to rent baby clothes online in a fashion similar to Netflix.

To help foster more ideas like Kim’s, MPowered also has partnerships with University of Michigan organizations such as the Engineering school’s Center for Entrepreneurship, which was founded at around the same time as MPowered.

According to Doug Neal, managing director for the center, groups within the university and Ann Arbor have been working for about 10 years to bring a culture of entrepreneurship to the area. “There is no natural ecosystem here like there is in Silicon Valley, so we’re trying to create our own ecosystem,” he says.

MPowered and the Center for Entrepreneurship work closely with other university groups like the Samuel Zell and Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, which is housed in the university’s business school. In addition, the organizations help to introduce students to the greater Ann Arbor startup scene by hosting a career fair in February featuring startups from around the area.

“There’s multiple touch points throughout all of our programs,” Neal says.

The result, he says, is a campus community that is well connected with the city’s startup incubators like Ann Arbor SPARK—founded by the Republican nominee for Michigan governor, Rick Snyder—which people hope will lead to the growth of Ann Arbor as a startup hub.

And though the ultimate goal of MPowered is to foster entrepreneurial growth in Ann Arbor, Mehta says at its core the organization is really about helping students utilize their talents to make an impact. “We’ve seen students identify a problem and, using an entrepreneurial mindset, be able to solve that problem,” Mehta says.

Jillian Berman is an intern for Xconomy Detroit. Follow @

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