By Sarah Mauet
A McGuire Entrepreneurship Program new venture team that is pioneering a new breed of smart sensor technology for self-driving cars was selected as a finalist for two business plan competitions that offered more than $1.6 million in prizes. Nunami Labs was a finalist in the Rice Business Plan Competition and the ASU Innovation Open, both in April. The team won second place and $700 in the Challenge Rounds at the Rice competition.
“I was thrilled to be selected as a finalist,” said Nunami Labs team member Kory Chinn. “Being recognized as a finalist in these competitions validates all the hard work we’re putting in, and is a fantastic opportunity. We are competing against teams from schools like MIT and Stanford, known for producing prominent startups, so being selected for the finals really speaks to the quality and caliber of the McGuire Program.”
The tech startup is being developed by Chinn (MIS and Entrepreneurship ’17), Ryan Leeper (MIS and Entrepreneurship ’17), and Scott Marshall (Electrical and Computer Engineering, ’17). The three students have been working together since fall of 2016 to develop Nunami Labs in the top-ranked McGuire Program, a competitive-entry program in which University of Arizona students spend a year developing an innovation from early-stage idea to launch-ready business plan.
Using innovative technology and manufacturing techniques, the high-performance smart sensors Nunami Labs is commercializing will grant future autonomous vehicles the ability to react to the environment, creating safer roads by reducing the 94 percent of accidents caused by human error, said Leeper.
There were 750 applicants for the Rice Business Plan Competition, and Nunami Labs was chosen as one of the 42 finalists to compete April 6-8. The selective competition – known as the world’s richest and largest student startup competition – offered $1.5 million in prizes.
Nunami Labs also was one of nearly three dozen teams that pitched and fielded tough questions from a panel of evaluators in the first round of the ASU Innovation Open, a new intercollegiate innovation competition designed to fuel multidisciplinary teams of collegiate founders. One of four startups selected to compete in the finals on April 2, Nunami Labs received a $5,000 award from Zero Mass Water to prepare for the ASU Innovation Open Demo Day, which had a $100,000 top prize.
While the prizes were a draw, the team is also looking forward to honing its pitching skills and networking with entrepreneurial leaders, potential partners, and investors at the competitions.
“We applied for business plan competitions because they contain a wealth of resources for student startups,” Leeper said. “The feedback from judges will help refine our business plan, there are numerous networking opportunities and chances to meet leaders in the community, and – if we win – the prize money will be huge in our early development.”
An offering of the McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship at the UA’s Eller College of Management, the McGuire Program is open to undergraduate and graduate students from all fields of study. In fact, McGuire Program students often benefit from collaborating with peers in other fields of study, and Nunami Labs is a great example of the strength of a cross-disciplinary new venture development team, said McGuire Program Director Joseph Broschak, Ph.D.
“As an engineering student, I wanted to break out of my mold and expand my horizons, and I’ve always been fascinated by the world of business and new ventures,” said Marshall. “The McGuire Program allowed me to branch out into business while allowing me to leverage my engineering abilities.”
In addition to bringing together their multidisciplinary team, the McGuire Program also has been fundamental in facilitating the cross-campus collaborations required to make Nunami Labs possible, said Leeper. The team got the idea for the business at an Engineering Roundtable the McGuire Program hosted early in the Fall semester. When Hao Xin, Ph.D, a UA Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, talked about the sensor technology he invented, the trio jumped at the opportunity to commercialize it.
“The team at Nunami Labs is a great example of how hard work and understanding the principles of entrepreneurship can transport university research from a lab into an emerging growth company,” said McGuire Program Mentor in Residence Dan Janes. “Their ability to bring together leading researchers from Electrical and Computer Engineering, Tech Launch Arizona, and industry experts demonstrates how companies are built by collaboration and community.”
Janes, an experienced and successful tech entrepreneur, has been meeting with Nunami Labs weekly since the group began the program. That extra hands-on guidance and the chance to work on their venture for a year while still in school is giving their business an advantageous head start, said Chinn.
“The McGuire Program offers a tremendous amount of support, as well as guidance from our mentors,” he said. “As successful investors and startup founders themselves, they’ve been in our shoes and can guide us through the uncertainty that comes with venturing into something new and uncharted. Since we are at the early stages of our venture, this mentorship has been especially invaluable.”
Leeper is grateful for the support the McGuire Program has provided in empowering him to create his dream job.
“It’s rewarding and naturally motivating to work for a cause you believe in and have a hand in creating, and the McGuire Program helps make it all possible,” he said. “Everything from resources for prototypes and travel, one-on-one mentorship with business leaders, technology to expand our ideas, event organization, and networking opportunities, the McGuire Program is the perfect mix of tools and people to enable our success.”
For more information about the McGuire Entrepreneurship Program, visit mcguire.eller.arizona.edu.
Top image — Ryan Leeper (left) and Kory Chinn presenting their pitch for Nunami Labs during the ASU Innovation Open semifinals — by Pete Zrioka, courtesy Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.