Georgia Tech has a long history of entrepreneurism, with graduates going on to start some very recognizable businesses.
Arnold Willat, a 1907 electrical engineering graduate, invented cold permanent waving for hair. Reginald Fleet, ME 16, and his brother developed the famed lubricant WD-40. Gerard “Red”Murray, ChE 39, created an affordable cleaning pad under the name O-Cel-O, which became the most widely used sponge in the world.
While Tech alumni have continued to start businesses, the past decades have seen the Institute become known for preparing students for jobs at top corporations. But the focus is shifting back toward entrepreneurism, says Craig Forest, ME 01, an assistant professor in the School of Mechanical Engineering. He’s been at the center of a push to encourage students to start their own projects. An entrepreneur himself, Forest helped create a capstone senior design course in the mechanical engineering program and the InVenture Prize, a contest for undergraduate student inventors.
In the second competition this past spring, recent mechanical engineering graduate Patrick Whaley claimed the top prize — including $20,000 and a free patent filing — for his Omega Wear invention, a type of weighted sportswear.
In 2009, the School of Mechanical Engineering built the 1,000-square-foot Invention Studio, complete with $350,000 worth of design tools, for students to build their prototypes.
“There is a groundswell of action in this area,” Forest said. “It’s a cultural change. We want students to know, if they have a quirky idea, they can turn to their roommate and say, ‘Let’s do this.’”
Entrepreneurism will become an even more official part of Georgia Tech’s identity with the launch of the strategic plan. The draft of the plan states, “Our campus culture needs to be one which supports innovation, entrepreneurship and public service just as it does teaching and research.”
In July, President G. P. “Bud” Peterson was selected as a national leader in entrepreneurship by Gary Locke, secretary of the Commerce Department, to serve on the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Students and alumni interested in building businesses can find support through the Enterprise Innovation Institute. It includes the Advanced Technology Development Center, which has helped launch 120 companies in its 30 years of existence. Among those companies are some started by Tech faculty, including Mark Allen, the senior vice provost for Research and Innovation who co-founded CardioMEMS, which creates micro heart sensors. Another ATDC graduate, Suniva, has become a world leader in solar cell manufacturing. It was founded by Regents’ professor Ajeet Rohatgi from the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
One of Tech’s most famous recent entrepreneurs is Christopher Klaus, Cls 96, who dropped out of the Institute to start up Internet Security Systems, which he later sold to IBM for $1.3 billion.
During a July talk to the Computing Alumni Organization on campus in the building named after him, Klaus explained that now is an ideal time for people to blaze their own trails in the rapidly shifting business world.
For the Tech alumni hoping their businesses become the next ISS, one thing is clear: Their reasons for taking the entrepreneurial path are as unique as the inventions and innovations they’ve created.
Pushed on a New Path
It’s often said that losing one’s job can be an opportunity to pursue one’s dreams. That’s the attitude taken by Dan Ketmayura, ISyE 04, and James Kim, ISyE 03, who both were laid off by Accenture after the economy cratered in 2008.
While Ketmayura and Kim had been successful in their corporate positions and likely could have found new jobs, neither of them had been very happy with life at a huge company.
“We came to the realization that we didn’t see our futures in the corporate world where we didn’t have control over what our efforts went toward,” Kim said. “I didn’t want to spend countless years working for corporations where the goal of my actions solely was to raise share prices.
“We wanted all of our hard work to go toward raising sustainable money to give away and impact people’s lives,” Kim said.
The two had known each other at Tech, and after graduation they would occasionally toss around business ideas. After losing their jobs, they decided it was a sign that they needed a change of direction.
They initially researched creating a business, but eventually they decided to take on a franchise. That would offer them the support of an existing company and proven product, Kim said. That product was teriyaki chicken.
In late May, the two opened a Sarku Japan restaurant at 5304 Windward Parkway, Alpharetta, Ga., in the city’s new technology park. The two split the duties, with Kim handling scheduling, labor and payroll while Ketmayura takes care of inventory and ordering. They’ve quickly noticed the differences from the corporate environment. Ketmayura said he often couldn’t see the impacts of his efforts at Accenture, but each decision at Sarku Japan, which also serves sushi, yields quick results.
Kim said the team atmosphere of the restaurant reminds him of working on group projects in his engineering classes. He and Ketmayura stress having a quality product and top-notch service.
“Although we’ve had our growing pains and not every transaction has been perfect, it’s great to see regular customers come in and for us to get to know our customers on a one-on-one basis,” Kim said. “Another thing that surprises me is just how much chicken teriyaki I can eat. I eat it for lunch every day and still haven’t gotten to the point where I’m entirely sick of it.”
The restaurant also offers unique challenges. As owners, the two have learned they’re responsible for every aspect of the operation. At the same time, they can’t be everywhere at once, Ketmayura said.
The two have the support of a company behind them, but opening the restaurant still required a significant investment of time and money. Each of them spends 70 hours a week at the restaurant, and it took more than $400,000 to get the location up and running.
While restaurants are known for operating on razor-thin margins, Ketmayura and Kim have given themselves an even steeper challenge by dedicating 10 percent of their profits to charity projects such as building wells in third-world countries and financing orphanages. Of the restaurant’s 12 employees, three are refugees from Iraq and one is from Burma.
“We also want to invest in sustainable projects locally that will affect our community here long term,” Ketmayura said. “James and I are both Christians, and the whole vision of starting this business was to help people.”
Donating a portion of the profits undoubtedly hurts the bottom line, Kim said, but being able to make that sort of impact is what pushed the two toward entrepreneurism.
“As cash-strapped as we are, at the end of the day, we sleep in our beds, and when we’re hungry, we have chicken teriyaki to eat and water to drink,” Kim said. “There are people around the world who can’t do that, and if we can change that, we should.
“On the topic of being cash-strapped, another thing Tech prepared us for today is learning how to turn $7 into a week’s worth of meals.”
Filling a Need
Rick Lane, who graduated from Tech in 2003, said his computer science curriculum at the Institute didn’t offer the “latest and greatest” programming language. Instead, the faculty taught students theory and practices, the framework of how to program.
“I’ve long thought that this was one of the most valuable parts of my education at Tech,” Lane said.
It’s served him well in his professional life, as he started out designing war game simulations at Booz Allen Hamilton before moving on to co-found TickIt, a user-based electronic trading software company in Chicago, along with fellow alums Nate Edwards, IntA 02, MS IntA 04, and Greg DeArment, CS 07, who also came from the war-gaming industry.
“With such a strong foundation in pure computer science, learning a new programming language — or, in my case, an entirely new field of financial programming — was merely a formality,” Lane said. “This ability to adapt and be quick on your feet extends beyond just writing code. As the business was growing, we had to react nimbly to changing market conditions, and I feel my years at Tech aptly prepared me for this.”
TickIt Trading Systems, launched in October, allows individual traders to custom build their own automated algorithmic trading plans without having to write any code. In June, the company was acquired by Trading Technologies Inc. Lane started the TickIt project with his cousin, Mike Unetich, a futures trader. Because of Lane’s experience at Tech, there wasn’t much of a difference between working in the financial and security sectors, he said.
“In both cases, we had a similar challenge: Make something that was highly complex and data-intensive approachable to someone who was not a technical or computer-savvy person,” Lane said. “Our goal with TickIt’s Algo Design Lab was to empower traders to design highly complex algorithms with a drag-and-drop interface that was both approachable as well as flexible, allowing them to worry about their trading strategy and not about the technical details under the hood.”
For those looking to start their own companies, Lane had a very clear piece of advice.
“Manage your expectations,” he said. “Everything will take twice as long as you expect, cost twice as much as you planned and Murphy’s law will almost always hold true: Whatever can go wrong will go wrong. So rather than trying to avoid making mistakes, be prepared to handle them and to learn something from them so you don’t end up repeating them.”
Pursuing a Goal
During one graduate class at Tech, Grace Ou was talking to a classmate about animation when another student butted into the conversation.
“I remember thinking, ‘Jeez, who does this guy think he is?’” said Ou, MS IDT 05.
That student was Jeff Weese, MS IDT 05, who shared Ou’s interest in 3-D animation. They began working together outside of class to master that medium. They both took graduate assistant positions as 3-D modelers in the Imagine Lab. They later worked together on a joint master’s project — a real-time 3-D game designed to teach cell biology to middle school students.
It was during their second year in the program that Ou suggested the two start a company together.
“I wasn’t sure how seriously he took me at the time, but two weeks later he came to me with a rough business plan, an interested private investor, a small studio space lined up and a page full of crazy company names,” Ou said. “I remember thinking, ‘We could actually do this.’ I had always dreamed of starting a business but making that first leap was a little intimidating.”
They agreed on the name Rival Industries and incorporated the company in 2006. The duo began producing high-quality 3-D graphics and animation for architectural visualization, educational games, interface design, medical procedures and digital information.
As with any entrepreneurial effort, times were tight at first. But Atlanta-based Rival was financially stable before the economic downturn.
“Like many startups, we did feel the strain of it all, but we’ve managed to focus on those areas of business that have traditionally held up well during periods of recession,” Ou said.
Both Ou and Weese came into the business having had experience working for large corporations. Ou said Rival has been able to adjust quickly when problems arise, and that kind of “strategic agility” wasn’t an option in the corporate world.
“We knew that we could build something different and better for ourselves,” Ou said. “Real-time 3-D engines can offer so much in terms of design visualization, and no one was really using them in that way. We wanted to pursue our own goals and make our own path.”
The reason Rafael Corrales, IntA ML 06, decided to be an entrepreneur is simple: It’s in his blood.
“I’m from a family of entrepreneurs, so it has always seemed normal to go start a company instead of going to work for someone else,” Corrales said.
He started his first company “by accident” when he was a 19-year-old student at Tech. He and a friend stumbled onto the business model of delivering affordable personal tutoring. After moving on to Harvard Business School, Corrales felt it was time to start a new company at the intersection of technology and education. He met with educators and administrators from various schools to find out what big problems they were facing.
What came up again and again was the need for quality, cost-effective grade books and administrative software for schools. That research led to the creation of LearnBoost, a free online gradebook for teachers that includes lesson plan software, calendars, attendance tracking and tagging of state standards to assignments. The San Francisco company has received significant attention from educators and media, including being featured on National Public Radio’s Motley Fool program.
Although this is Corrales’ second effort at starting a business, the experience remains challenging.
“I don’t know where I first heard this, but starting a company is your attempt at reinventing the world,” he said. “And with that ambition comes a huge emotional roller coaster when things don’t go as planned and challenges get in your way. But it’s not the kind of thing that you can really teach. You have to experience it by starting a company.”
Despite the challenges, Corrales can’t imagine himself trading the experience in for a 9-to-5 job. “Right now, I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
Picking Their Co-workers
When they were kids, Joey and Michael Depa were told they and their dogs had to stay off the lawn of their home whenever it had been chemically treated. Later, the two ran a lawn business together before moving on to Georgia Tech.
After graduating with a management degree in 2009, Michael Depa accepted a job with a landscaping maintenance company that was starting a residential chemical fertilizer division. But he became uncomfortable with the possible health hazards posed by chemicals, and so the brothers started discussing a way to strike out on their own.
“I saw great potential to focus on developing an organic fertilizer company that focused on products that were safer for kids, pets and the environment and still developed a green, healthy lawn,” said Joey Depa, IE 05.
The result is Boost of Nature, which offers natural lawn care and organic fertilizer that uses corn gluten. Joey Depa began developing the natural fertilizer in 2008, and the brothers took the company live in early 2010. Since then, they have found a demand for safe, natural fertilizer. There’s only one downside.
“The Georgia heat is pretty awful,” Michael Depa said. “It takes a lot out of you
on some days.”
One of the main positives of the experience for both has been the chance to run a business with a sibling. They said the benefits include knowing they can trust each other and a willingness to be completely honest.
“That’s not to say there hasn’t been a family argument around the dinner table,” Joey Depa said.