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VOL. 7 | NO. 17 | Saturday, April 19, 2014

Crews Center Finds Place in Startup Landscape

By Andy Meek

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At the Crews Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Memphis, a feeder system for the rest of the city’s technology, innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem is slowly coming together.

A new director has been in place for a few months. Programming is taking shape, and interest is beginning to build as the Crews Center hosts everything from speakers to supporting one-off creative endeavors like the group Memphis Makers and Creators, which recently got funding from the center to build a giant, functional Nintendo controller.

The center’s director, Mike Hoffmeyer, is a veteran of the startup ecosystem in Memphis, having gone through the Seed Hatchery accelerator program twice. He came onboard with the Crews Center last June, originally for what was to be a short-term contract position.

The Crews Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Memphis is jumpstarting tech and startup entrepreneurship in Memphis. Enabling creative endeavors is part of that, like the Crews Center helping fund the building of a giant functional video game controller.

(Submitted)

“When I came in, I kind of got the lowdown on what the vision was and the mission and all that, and I saw some areas that I thought could be improved in terms of creating some short-term success and contributing more to long-term success,” Hoffmeyer said. “I made some suggestions, and the university adopted them. They were very gung-ho about offering an entrepreneurship program and creating more of a proactive kind of entrepreneurial culture on campus. The support was substantial enough that when my 90 days was up, I said, you know what, I think I’d kind of like to stick around.”

He was hired in January at the center, which was named in honor of Hilliard Crews, an alumnus of the university and a member of the Society of Entrepreneurs, who along with his wife, Harriett, invested $1 million to get it built.

In general, Hoffmeyer explained, the purpose of the center is to show university students and faculty members who may have entrepreneurial ideas and don’t know what to do with them how they can get those ideas commercialized. And eventually, turn them into a venture worthy of investment.

The center is intended to be a resource showing them how to do that and includes a prototype lab on site. There, participants can use things like 3D printers and other gadgets to model and prototype their ideas.

“We take raw kids with ideas here and teach them how to build business models, how to validate them, how to do customer discovery and basically how to launch a venture, create revenue and create an investible story,” Hoffmeyer said. “As part of the local startup ecosystem as a whole, our role is basically to serve as a feeder system, where we create quality entrepreneurs to feed into the system and to create better deal flow locally for the investment community.”

As far as what goes on from day to day, the entry point for most students to the Crews Center is by experiencing its “entrepreneur office hours.” That involves any curious student or faculty member on campus – the center is not open for participants from the public, focusing solely on the university population – who may not know where to start with their idea scheduling an office hours appointment with Hoffmeyer, which can be done online.

In those sessions, Hoffmeyer helps them create an action plan around their ideas and start executing against those ideas. To complement the office hours, the center also schedules events including sessions with outside speakers, and usually once a semester will host some sort of competition to foster creativity.

As an example of the latter kind of creativity-focused endeavor the Crews Center tries to embrace, Hoffmeyer said a student organization called Memphis Makers and Creators approached the center saying they had a vision of an event where they would create from scratch a giant Nintendo video game controller.

And they would use a projector to have two people then use the functional controller to play old-school video games.

“We gave them money to buy the materials to make that happen,” Hoffmeyer said.

“It didn’t have much to do with entrepreneurship, but it was the creativity behind it we found interesting, and we want to make sure that’s celebrated and enabled.”

Next semester, Crews himself is coming in to speak to the students, giving them a first-hand taste of what’s possible and of the kind of successful entrepreneurial life the center might put them in position to start achieving.

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