Business school bootcamp teaches art and science of entrepreneurship

June 21, 2013

Photo: students building toy tower

Students compete to build the tallest plastic toy tower during a scenario planning exercise at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurial Bootcamp. The purpose of the exercise was to teach group planning and execution, and how to stay calm under pressure.

Photo: Camilla Klyve

Ice cream is more than a dessert to Maya Warren: it's her future. She studies it on a molecular level and plans to start a business related to ice cream after graduation.

"To this day, I love it more than yesterday. I love what I do," Warren says. "The beauty of it is that I've been able to take a passion that is a science and make it an entrepreneurial endeavor."

Warren, a fifth-year Ph.D. student, was one of 67 students who participated in the Wisconsin Entrepreneurial Bootcamp (WEB) June 17-21 at the Wisconsin School of Business.

WEB is designed to give graduate students in engineering and life sciences the opportunity to learn from successful entrepreneurs. While most of the students at the camp spend their academic careers studying theoretical questions, the WEB course is a practical how-to for creating and sustaining start-ups.

Because the course is focused on non-business majors, many of the students — like Warren — didn't always know they wanted to be entrepreneurs. As a chemistry major at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., Warren was unsure about her career path until she saw an episode of the Food Network's "Unwrapped." After watching a food chemist create unusual soda flavors on the show, Warren thought the career looked interesting and decided to pursue it.

“The thing I got the most value out of was people who were out practicing entrepreneurship coming back and sharing their stories.”

Chad Sorenson

After a lackluster internship at a cereal company, Warren made a promise to herself: "I realized I'm going to do what I love and love what I do for the rest of my life."

Warren gave the question some thought and recognized that she really loved ice cream and wanted to research it for a living. She sought out UW-Madison Professor Rich Hartel, an expert in crystallization, and began her Ph.D. program researching the microstructure and behavior of the cool treat.

WEB students like Warren have gone on to develop products for Fortune 500 companies and launch start-ups, including C-Motive Technologies, Imbed Biosciences, and healthfinch.

"Scientific professionals who can act entrepreneurially have the potential to unlock the economic and social value of the university's scientific discoveries — and innovations more generally — which is critical to the future of the Madison community, the state and the nation," says John Surdyk, Wisconsin School of Business faculty associate and one of the WEB organizers.

Alumni of WEB and other entrepreneurship programs often return to share stories and advice. This year, Chad Sorenson, a 2002 MBA alumnus from the business school who also has bachelor's (1999) and master's (2001) degrees from the School of Engineering, shared a case study of his company Sologear. Sorenson's idea for FlameDisk, a disposable aluminum disc for grills that replaces the hassle of charcoal with solidified ethanol, started out with a brainstorm in a big-box store.

"When I walked into Walmart that day, my thinking was about how I could cost-reduce a $100 propane grill to five bucks — which is kind of a crazy thought," Sorenson says, "but that's essentially what I started the company to do."

“I’ve learned the importance of your venture being innovative, not just your products.”

Maya Warren

After selling his company to BIC Corporation in 2011, he did some consulting and is now working on his next venture. Sorenson still makes time to help students.

"When I went through engineering and entrepreneurship programs, the thing I got the most value out of was people who were out practicing entrepreneurship coming back and sharing their stories," he says. "Things just sort of came alive when I was able to see what it was like."

Wisconsin School of Business 1996 BBA alumnus and biotechnology pioneer G. Steven Burrill helped start the first WEB in 2007 with fellow UW-Madison alumnus and businessman John Morgridge (BA '55). Burrill has returned each summer to give students a glimpse of the current business climate and lessons from his time as an entrepreneur.

"I have a tremendous desire to give back," Burrill says. "I think it's critically important that students are able to meet with executives."

Warren says she will continue to absorb everything she can about entrepreneurship, including what she learned during WEB and other courses at the Wisconsin School of Business.

"I've learned the importance of your venture being innovative, not just your products. You need to be able to distinguish yourself," she says. "I hope I will be able to look back at what I've learned, taking away the intellectual aspects but also taking away the social and personal relationships."

—Lavilla Capener