Tiger Cage enables students to unlock business ideas

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Before last fall, Auburn University students Jake Wright, Cole Kinchler and Sharan Kalva had plenty of ideas for potential businesses but no concrete plan for bringing those concepts to life.

Since competing in Tiger Cage, a competition for Auburn University student entrepreneurs, they've proven to be quick studies in building a viable business from scratch. They will launch their company, SimplyProse, a collaborative online platform for writers, editors, publishers and literary agents, later this month in San Francisco at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference for startups. They were one of two former Tiger Cage teams to reach the finals of the Alabama Launchpad, a statewide entrepreneurship competition, in August and earned $40,000 in funding.

"Without [Tiger Cage], we would not be where we are as a company," said Wright, CEO of SimplyProse and a Raymond J. Harbert College of Business finance major.

Auburn undergraduate and graduate students with grand ideas for early-stage product, business or service concepts will soon have an opportunity to follow a similar path. The launch meeting for the second Tiger Cage competition will be held Wednesday, Sept. 23, at 5 p.m. in Lowder Hall 125. Sponsored by the Harbert College of Business and the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation, Tiger Cage is open to students from all disciplines and offers a grand prize of $10,000 in funding and $30,000 in legal assistance.

Before working to earn a spot in the finals of the 2016 Tiger Cage, which will be held on April 22 as part of the Auburn University Entrepreneurship Summit, Tiger Cage competitors will participate in multiple mentorship sessions with Auburn faculty and alumni business leaders. Wright said those sessions played a vital role in helping his team gain comfort in making business pitches.

"Tiger Cage allowed us the space to learn from our mistakes and provided us with a network of support and mentors we would not have otherwise had access to," Wright said. "I would encourage any student with an idea to try it. Even if you ultimately decide against pursuing the business, you'll learn something about yourself. At the very least, you'll leave with a basic understanding of the principles of entrepreneurship and a network of individuals eager to help you down the road."

The four finalists in the 2015 Tiger Cage pitched to a panel that included original "Shark Tank" judge Kevin Harrington, as well as representatives of leading venture capital firms. SimplyProse Chief Operating Officer Cole Kinchler, a senior supply chain management major in the Harbert College of Business, said that experience ensured he and his teammates wouldn't be intimidated by other business pitch settings.

"With Tiger Cage, we basically had a year of learning and preparation – figuring out how to put a business plan together, how to come up with an idea, how to make your idea a real thing," Kinchler said. "We had a great foundation to build on. If we didn't do Tiger Cage, I don't think it would have happened."

Engineering students Alex Wakefield and Jonathan Philip won the first Tiger Cage competition with their concept, Parking Grid Technologies, app-based software that alerts commuters to available parking spaces on demand. "The most valuable lesson that I learned through Tiger Cage was that what you say is not nearly as important as how you say it," Wakefield said. "Perhaps the way you explain an idea can often be more valuable than the idea itself."
Tiger Cage teams certainly aren't lacking in imagination or quality. One team that fell just short of the Tiger Cage finals, Tennibot, a ball-retrieving robot for tennis enthusiasts conceived by business and engineering students, earned a spot among the six finalists at Alabama Launchpad.

"You get to learn about creating business plans, finance and about building and managing teams," said Kalva, a member of SimplyProse and a senior in engineering. "It is free practical education. The competition is a serious environment and you will be competing against very good teams, so give it your best from the start."

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