Two sons of immigrants who will graduate from Auburn University in December are on their way to striking it big with a software application that helps independent convenience store operators track and manage data and sales, and maximize profits.
SwiftSku is one of multiple innovative startups that have emerged from the New Venture Accelerator, a business incubator that is one of the components of The Park, a collaborative, entrepreneurial ecosystem complex in Auburn.
Mit Patel and Daniel Mazur, SwiftSku’s founders, made headlines by securing more than $400,000 in prize money at the prestigious Rice Business Plan Competition, the largest and richest student startup competition in the world. Already the company, less than two years old, has secured some $3.2 million in funding.
“We realized we could do more to help independent convenience store owners increase their business by developing the digital platform,” said Patel, who grew up helping his family operate their convenience stores. He graduated with Mazur in 2017 from Hoover High School and the two have known each other since sixth grade.
The New Venture Accelerator is a business incubator for students and faculty members at Auburn University. It’s a place where aspiring entrepreneurs can receive the support and guidance to navigate through starting a business while completing a degree. The accelerator is jointly managed by the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation (ARTF) and the Harbert College of Business and housed inside The Park’s Research and Innovation Center on Devall Drive.
The accelerator is considered the “experiential learning piece” within Auburn University’s entrepreneurship program. Although connected with the Harbert College of Business, students don’t have to be enrolled in the business college to take part. The program offers entrepreneurship classes, support from coaches and mentors through the accelerator, office space and access to competitions – such as the Tiger Cage and the Halloween Pitch Competition – to obtain startup capital without having to give up equity or pile on debt.
To be accepted into the New Venture Accelerator, teams must apply – describing their business idea, goals, the problem their product or service would solve and the societal need they’re satisfying. A five-member selection board from the Harbert College of Business and ARTF reviews the applications. To date, they’ve accepted all who’ve applied.
“Our teams have collectively raised over $21 million in startup capital,” said Lou Bifano, director of entrepreneurship strategy at Auburn University, said. “We’ve been delighted with the internal successes of our teams but, more importantly, how their ideas have been validated in external events.”
A dozen teams occupy space at the accelerator, including SwiftSku. Others are Vulcan Line Tools; protective gear and prosthetic maker XO Armor; Stelona Shoes, which offers interchangeable shoes on one sole; WELLBLox; student marketplace Sellie; Connect Just Go; a university housing specialized cleaning company, U-Neat Cleaning Services; FeedMeAuburn; cybersecurity startup DeepSpyz; and Dead Bird Duck Calls.
“I started off bootstrapping this company with some of my own money and money from my parents,” said Zac Young, president and founder of Vulcan Line Tools. “When I was able to get in the New Venture Accelerator here at Auburn, I competed in multiple pitch competitions and won money from those, so I’m able to run my business with that capital.” Vulcan Line Tools won first place in the Halloween Pitch Competition, SEC Student Pitch Competition, Tiger Cage Competition and Alabama LaunchPad.
Young recently graduated from Auburn’s mechanical engineering program and credited his business success to the accelerator. His company developed a device called the Wave Timer, which measures the sag, tension and temperature of power lines, which improves reliability of the grid.
“I think the biggest thing for me is being able to meet the other people in here and go down the hall, knock on their door and ask, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ and bounce ideas off of each other,” Young said
“The New Venture Accelerator has been a tremendous advantage for us on numerous fronts,” said Michael Zabala, XO Armor founder and chairman. “The most obvious is this office space, but we also have the experts in entrepreneurship, the Entrepreneurs-in-Residence (EIRs), the director of the program, all these people specifically here to help us to grow and be successful. Their experiences and advice have proven to be critical for us as we’ve begun this process.”
Zabala is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Auburn. His company uses a 3D scanning mobile app and 3D printing technology to produce customized pads and guards for athletes and for use in musculoskeletal medicine.
“Entrepreneurship is the sort of thing that has an extremely steep learning curve,” Zabala said. “So, if you can find someone who has already climbed it, you want to find them and ask them questions whenever you have them.”
In addition to the full accelerator program, the Harbert College of Business offers an eight-week Summer Accelerator Program, with a focus on taking ideas and transforming them into business models. Some of the summer teams have moved to the full accelerator, including SwiftSku, which has grown from its original two founders to a team of 13. In the next year, the company expects to employ 20 to 25 people.
Looking ahead, incubator facilitators envision more Auburn University colleges getting involved, as well as expanding industry partnerships. On the agenda is expanding sources for early-stage seed funds and drawing in greater expertise in software development. This philosophy of collaboration is a key component of The Park.