You have a startup idea—but you are still a university student and are not sure how to get it off the ground. An innovative entrepreneurial group like the Louisiana State University (LSU) Student Incubator can help bring it to life.
Since 2009, the Student Incubator at LSU Innovation Park and Louisiana Business & Technology Center (LBTC) has been helping students launch their startups and small businesses, including apps, software, consumer products, and advertising services.
The program—open to undergraduate and graduate students of any major—sets students and their business ideas up for success through mentoring, business services, and tangible resources.
“The Student Incubator is a place where like-minded, entrepreneurial students or people from the community can come to get first-hand business coaching in all aspects of a start-up business,” says program manager Jason Boudreaux.
Boudreaux and his team work with students on everything from the business plan, research, pitching, and product development to funding, financial planning, marketing, patents, trademarks, and attorney advice. Students also share office space, equipment resources, and, coolest of all, prototyping facilities and engineering resources.
Your startup idea, their support
So, how does the Student Incubator work? It all starts with your idea. There’s an informal application process that leads to a kickoff meeting with Boudreaux and his team.
“We make sure that [students] have thoroughly researched the market,” says Boudreaux. “They can be at the basic idea stage, but we do some feasibility analysis to understand who their customers are and what their budgetary needs are.” Simply put, the team helps students get a sense of whether the idea will succeed as an actual business.
While the Incubator leans heavily on strong technology-focused businesses, it’s not a requirement. What they most want to see in Incubator candidates is passion and self-motivation. A good business idea is only as good as the self-driven student team behind it.
“We want to make sure they’re energetic and enthusiastic, and that they’re receptive to coaching and mentoring,” Boudreaux continues. “It’s about their dedication. We don’t want a student who doesn’t show up for six months. We want a student who is serious about starting a small business. We want to ensure that this is a small business that can further their career.”
Boudreaux emphasizes that, yes, students have access to lots of staff and equipment resources, but it’s about self-sufficiency and dedication—in other words, the best qualities of an entrepreneur. “We do all this in a coaching capacity. We don’t do all this for the students. We guide them through the process,” says Boudreaux.
And now, the pitch
Once accepted to the LSU Student Incubator, you begin creating a business plan. Is there a market for your idea? Who is the target audience for your product or service? How will you reach your target audience? How will this product or service make money?
“We take students through the Lean Canvas process. That requires knowing the customer and interviewing the customer,” says Boudreaux. “We’ll teach them [how] to interview customers, so they ensure they are providing the correct value proposition for their products and services.”
“The personalized one-on-one consulting is a big deal,” adds David Winwood, executive director of the LBTC, which oversees and hosts the Student Incubator. “You’re not going to be in a room with twenty-five or thirty other people, taking chances on getting something from it. International students will benefit from personalized attention and their customized needs from the outset.”
LSU Incubator success stories
To date, more than 200 students have developed their startup ideas through LSU’s innovative program. Among the more than fifty student businesses started at LSU, thirty-nine are still in operation, including:
Red Six Media, a digital marketing and advertising agency started by two LSU students. The growing firm has since moved to downtown Baton Rouge, employs fifteen people, and creates work for clients like Dow Louisiana, Exxon Mobil, and Turner Industries.
Tonal Innovation, a music product-based student company. They created a device that lets you mount your smartphone on your musical instrument to read digital sheet music.
Revibe, a music app that allows users to consolidate their streaming accounts on Spotify, Soundcloud, and Amazon Music all in one place.
Perhaps the biggest success story to come out of the LSU Student Incubator is HitLights, an LED lights company founded by former LSU graduate students Bin Yu and Leo Zhao in 2010. Their start-up idea for LED strip lights got its big break at (no surprise) an LSU-Alabama football match-up.
With exposure from a nationally televised game on their minds, Yu and Zhao had the Geaux Tigers foresight to outfit fans in the student section with LED-trimmed T-shirts. An investor was watching and contacted them the next week.
“In the beginning, [our company] was very basic. The LSU Student Incubator really tells you every step—how you want to start a business. They help you with your business plan,” says Yu, a native of Chengdong in Quinhai, China. “They have an awesome business consultant on-site to work with you to make sure you are comfortable. They show you how to start a business, how you can grow the business, and how you can scale the business.”
After their national television splash, HitLights expanded into New Orleans Saints gear, French Quarter wearables, and has since become a leading business-to-business LED lighting solution for casinos and concert venues. (You may have even danced to their beat-timed LED lights at nightclubs.) They are worth an estimated $32 million.
“LSU being a big university—50,000 students—you definitely meet all kinds of people. The business school here is also very great. Great professors and a great MBA program. You have all the things you need here.” — Bin Yu, ’10, founder, HitLights
Building community in Baton Rouge and beyond
Yu and Zhao started HitLights in a cube at 8000 Innovation Park Drive on the LSU campus, grew into headquarters offices in Baton Rouge, and have since established offices in Chino, California, and Shenzhen, China. Giving back to LSU and the Incubator is important to Yu and Zhao, and they continue to sponsor the Venture Challenge, a $25,000 prize competition hosted by the Incubator and the Stephenson Entrepreneurship Institute.
“We have many students who have taken these ideas and established companies and are now working and employing people in downtown Baton Rouge,” says Winwood. “This is the virtuous cycle we are looking for. We want students who are enthusiastic about opportunity, and stay here. That’s a win-win for us, the student, and the local business economy.”
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