Auburn University’s Tiger Cage Accelerator helps turn new business concepts into business startups

Published: June 15, 2018
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“It’s a tour guide into the business world.” That’s how Matthew Hanks, a doctoral candidate in kinesiology, described the new Tiger Cage Summer Accelerator Program for Auburn University student-led startups. “It’s assuming you know very little about starting your own business, then guiding you through it,” said Hanks, one of 12 students from eight business startups involved in the first-year program.

The Tiger Cage Accelerator and Incubator—located in the Auburn University Research Park—is operated and managed by the Harbert College of Business. The eight-week crash course welcomes students into the world of startups by teaching:

  • How to protect intellectual properties

  • Pricing strategies

  • Marketing and sales strategies

  • Competitor analysis

  • Product development

  • Communications skills

  • And, of course, how to make the perfect pitch to investors.

“The purpose is to accelerate their business ideas and turn them into business startups,” said Harbert College Director of Entrepreneurship Strategy Lou Bifano, former vice president for business development at IBM. “In eight weeks, we compress the amount of time it takes to provide them with a set of learning experiences to try to minimize the mistakes they might make and to increase the probability that they are going to be successful in launching a business.”

Bifano isn’t alone in this adventure. The Tiger Cage Accelerator has brought on three long-time business professionals as Entrepreneurs in Residence who serve as mentors for student startups.

“What’s so exciting is the infrastructure of this program is really coming into place and this is not just a Harbert College of Business initiative,” said Entrepreneur in Residence Scott McGlon, who has helped build and manage startups for the past 20 years. “This a university-wide initiative to build an entrepreneurship ecosystem.”

McGlon joins Kevin Sandlin, who specializes in helping startups in the Atlanta area, and Zilliant CFO Phil Fraher, who brings venture capital expertise.

“We bring in the real-life scenarios that these startups will go through,” McGlon added. “We are trying to prepare them for what’s going to be taking place and keep them on track with milestones we outlined for them. Really, it’s all the way through execution. Whether it’s a marketing plan, a social media plan, customer discovery—everything that you could imagine that a startup is going to go through.”

The summer program received a boost from a $1 million permanent endowment established by 1982 Harbert College alum Benny M. LaRussa and his wife, Lynn.

“We piloted the program last summer. It is great to have the resources and assistance to scale it up,” said LaKami Baker, managing director of the Lowder Center for Family Business and Entrepreneurship.

The program format is a set of interactive lectures each morning with periods in the afternoons for business plan and communications skills work. “A cornerstone is being able to communicate verbally, communicate in writing, and being able to inspire people that this is a great business idea,” Bifano said.

For example, Michael Knotts, a doctoral student in industrial engineering, credited the accelerator for vastly improving his communications skills with would-be clients. “We’re learning to conduct what we call problem interviews,” said Knotts, who claimed his method of metal-additive manufacturing is less expensive and faster than existing products. “We’ve already gone out to different industries where we think that there’s a problem, or a need, where our product fits. We’ve gotten fantastic feedback.”

McGlon is excited to see the fruits of the accelerator already beginning to pay off. “Three businesses have a high probability of securing patents,” he said. “We’ve discovered that over the past few months, one has already generated revenue and has great momentum.”

Three of this year’s Tiger Cage business pitch competition finalists received spots in the accelerator. ESCAPE Therapy, a specially-fitted electrotherapy garment, won the Tiger Cage competition and $50,000 in funding and services to help launch the business. Hanks, a member of the ESCAPE Therapy team, is already seeing the benefits.

“None of us were business-minded individuals as our concept was founded on our passions,” he said. “The next hurdle for us was trying to figure out the nuances into getting this thing to actually take off.”

Dawn Michaelson, a doctoral student in consumer and design sciences and fellow ESCAPE Therapy team member, explained how that happened. “We’ve been taken through the process of making sure that our experiences and the people that we have talked to for our product are actually part of a larger customer segment,” she said. “There really are a lot of injured patients with the same experiences [need], so we know that our product will be viable in the marketplace.

“The Accelerator has shown us what we need to plan for next. On Fridays, we are asked, ‘Where are you with your company?’ ‘How are you progressing?’ ‘Where do you need help?’ The program is helping us structure our company with our product, but it’s also helping us with the company formation. We’re getting help on both angles.”

Olivia Cook, doctoral student in public administration and public policy, and co-founder of Snippety-Snap, a camera phone stand and integrated mobile app, said, “We are getting a better understanding of how to go out there and figure out who our customers are. With this – it’s helping us fine-tune our ideas and our product that we’re trying to bring into this big world.”

Auburn University's Harbert College of Business provides its students with an innovative-yet-practical education focused on career readiness. The college's degree programs in accountancy, business analytics and supply chain management lead the nation. Its research centers in supply chain management and radio frequency identification (RFID) technology guide the Fortune 100. Harbert's pioneering online education programs offer value and flexibility. The college's nationally recognized faculty produce research that informs and responds to today's business trends. Learn more at the Harbert College of Business website.