The thought of turning a mere idea into a product or concept can be daunting for many students. Few realize the sheer magnitude of resources available to them on campus at RIT, even when it comes to flighty personal projects that may have the potential of growing into legitimate startup companies. One such resource is the Simone Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

"We create a form for students and faculty from all colleges to work together," said Dr. Richard DeMartino, director of the Simone Center. DeMartino began as a primary coach for students interested in pursuing their startup business ideas. Since then, he has come to dedicate the majority of his time to tending the innumerable responsibilities associated with maintaining the center along with its five full-time employees. The 10-year-old establishment resembles a "playpen," as DeMartino called it, for entrepreneurial endeavors. It is also well-integrated in the local community with advantageous, real-world partnerships for students to gain exposure to. There are various opportunities for students who are interested in exploring product or service business ventures, constructing multidisciplinary teams, evaluating the market potential and ultimately financing to launch a startup. 

In the beginning, the organization saw many projects ​focused on software and web. "It was the hottest thing out there," DeMartino said. Over time, however, the Simone Center and its efforts began receiving much more support from the different colleges and branches at RIT. They saw the idea of physicality begin to morph as a focus on health, access technology and tracking technology started to develop. The program's partnership with NTID brought about much success as students began addressing very real issues impacting their local community.

What's the Big Idea? 

Ideas come to people in different ways. For some, it may be a mid-shower epiphany or even a mealtime napkin sketch. Others find their most creative selves emerging in the midst of heated debates among colleagues or friends. Students at RIT are fortunate enough to have accommodations for both types of thinkers interested in turning these ideas into business endeavors.  

"The best first step for any student to take is to come over to Innovator's Hour and just talk about your idea," said Mark Brown, a third year Industrial and Systems Engineering major at RIT. "It's a great way to hear from other people in other fields whether or not it's feasible, whether or not you need everything you need." Brown is presently pursuing his startup idea with the help of RIT's many resources. He is also president of Innovator's Hour, a club run through the Simone Center and comprised of a diverse, multidisciplinary group of thinkers. 

"We have students from pretty much every college on campus," Brown said. "Pretty much every major is represented, so if you have an idea, we can give you feedback on it and we can help you gain a few resources." With weekly meetings and occasional speakers, the club is just one more way the Simone Center provides students with opportunities to bring their ideas to fruition. 

"We create a form for students and faculty from all colleges to work together."

One of the most prominent struggles students face has to do with forming a well-rounded team capable of taking on a project. "Everybody's looking for somebody, and nobody really knows about it," said Brown. Innovator's Hour, held on Fridays at 4 p.m., is intended to help with that by connecting like-minded individuals who may be just as passionate about a particular idea a student has presented to the group. 

"When you hit a problem and you try to solve it, you generally end up 'pivoting' to try to solve the problem. Then you just persevere with your idea and you keep on going," said DeMartino. Strong and previously successful teams that DeMartino has seen come through the center have all shared that quality.

"A lot of students have skills, but they don't have a problem to solve for people," DeMartino said. He then discussed the IdeaLab event offered through the Simone Center as an opportunity to identify and explore solutions for real world issues. Through IdeaLab, RIT has developed a history of working with Rochester Regional Health as well as with various social service agencies. Students are able to then direct their projects toward attempting to address relevant and current concerns. 

Developing a Growth Strategy

From there, Brown recommended students take Applied Entrepreneurship, a class offered through the Simone Center. "That's a great way to start doing market research," he explained. "It shows you how you can do market discovery, how you can organize your market so you can have a growth strategy and even know if your idea is sellable." He went on to say that this is the step where students get to go from figuring out "if they could build the product" to "if they can sell the product." 

"The customer is right," DeMartino said, and that distinction is crucial here in understanding the commercialization potential for the concepts being designed.

DeMartino also noted that, in addition to the numerous program offerings, the Simone Center also provides students with "supporting networks." Students whose projects involve the construction of physical products are directed toward an underutilized yet highly valuable RIT Student Makerspace commonly referred to as The Construct. There, they may prototype and model concepts for testing and design evolution.

There are also a number of industry professionals, including several "experienced entrepreneurs or product developers," according to DeMartino, who kindly volunteer time out of their busy schedules to assist in guiding student teams through the exciting stages of developing a startup. These coaches also help students ensure their project teams are well-rounded, with members adept in soft and hard (technical) skills. While these coaches are technically only responsible for working with the students for the 15 weeks of the program, many will remain in contact well past the closure of the program for future questions or simply for the sake of tracking the students' progress. 

From Incubation to Real World

"We help create businesses," DeMartino said. "And we help create supporting infrastructure." 

The primary programs that run through the Simone Center include the Student Incubator Program, Saunders Summer Startup and the aforementioned IdeaLab. Each program is structured differently, making it more suitable to certain students depending on their circumstances, how far along their project already is and what the student hopes to take away from the experience. 

The Student Incubator Program gives students access to coaches and other resources to aid in the development of their business venture. It is typically the target program for students nurturing fledgling ideas and looking to dedicate lots of time to their project. In this way, team members are able to to earn course credit while advancing their early stage concepts.

"Our Student Incubator is structured as a class," DeMartino said. "The Simone Center enables students to integrate into their coursework, their entrepreneurial experiences." 

He further explained that a sample step in the program may involve the students going out and speaking with a number of potential customers to gain clarity on exactly what it is they are trying to commercialize. Depending on the progress made through this program, some projects have the potential to move forward to the RIT Venture Creations Incubator program.

The Saunders Summer Startup is a full-time accelerator opportunity students may take advantage of in order to develop their business ideas. It is conducted in partnership with the Saunders College of Business, which funds the program while the Simone Center runs it. 

"We take teams," DeMartino elaborated, "and we give them seminars, we give them coaches that they meet with regularly, offices, a little investment fund..." The list goes on. Through this option, students are able to work full time, maintained by the stipends they are provided. Brown clarified that the program is targeted toward teams that believe they "could actually generate income" provided time and money to do so.

"They work very close with you," Brown added. "But also very hands-off in that you're managing everything from now on." 

Brown is currently participating in the Saunders Summer Startup program with two other students on a project called Form Eyeware.

"We are working on creating an algorithm for facial recognition that then can translate the dimensions gathered from that to create a pair of glasses that fits the face perfectly," said Brown. "We want to target more customized eyewear. From there, we also want to look at allowing the user to generally reshape the glasses however they want to create a customized pair of glasses." 

As part of the program, Brown's team receives assistance in the form of mentorship for 10 hours a week along with a proper space to work as a collective team. "[The coaches] work very close with you," Brown said. "But it's also very hands-off in that you're managing everything from now on."

Another team of RIT students, referred to as Hz, presents a particularly interesting case. Their project is called Wavio, and it is meant to address real world issues that Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals face daily. Wavio will be able to act as a set of ears, listening to and identifying the various sounds in one's home, for example. Wavio group members personally experienced incidents concerning some of the difficulties associated with being unable to hear the sounds in their homes actually sparked the initial motivation in developing this concept. With Wavio, the user will be made aware of the sounds coming from within the home, so long as they have placed a device there. In this way, the team has explored an opportunity for making simple home living more accessible.

A fourth element exists in addition to these services offered through the Simone Center in partnership with various colleges at RIT. This includes the speaker series, Tiger Tank, Business Model Competition and Access Technology Contest. These events help promote a creative, entrepreneurial environment on campus.

Similarly, the Center also organizes workshops. These are fast-paced interactions that bring together a highly diverse group of individuals and task them with solving a particular problem. Some workshops are themed, like one held last Spring semester addressing issues in designing for diversity. 

The workshops tend to span an evening or extend over a weekend. In that time, participants are expected to brainstorm ideas, refine them, rapidly prototype concepts and present to an eager audience or set of judges. Brown suggested that one of the primary attractions of the events correlates with the opportunity to exercise the "critical thinking skills" common in RIT's student body.

Some inspiring startups have emerged through the support of the individuals and resources made available by the Simone Center. There are quite a few more similarly exciting projects expected to develop in the near future through RIT's entrepreneurship programs. The key is to ensure students understand what resources lie in the buildings they walk past every single day on their way to class. There are ambitious students walking this campus, and they've got ideas that RIT wants to help bring to light. 

"The people that stay in the program and build their business are the people that want to," concluded DeMartino. "They're the motivator of their business. We don't run things, we help."