Initiative Offers Expert Advice to Turn Ideas into Businesses
By Jill Gambon
As a Manning School of Business senior, Samir ElKamouny started developing an idea for a bicycle-sharing business that would make it easier for people to pedal around Lowell to classes, stores, work or appointments. A longtime cycling enthusiast, ElKamouny worked with another business student to research bicycle makers, explore different business models, investigate potential partners and plan out other details for the venture.
ElKamouny, who graduated in May 2012, honed his proposal with help from the Merrimack Valley Sandbox, an initiative founded two years ago by the Deshpande Foundation to foster entrepreneurship in the region.
ElKamouny participated in Sandbox pitch contests, got feedback from successful entrepreneurs and met business and civic leaders at Sandbox-sponsored events. The guidance he got and the networking contacts he made have helped him advance his plans. He is on course to launch the business, called Green Bikes of Lowell, next spring.
“I don’t think it would be happening without the Sandbox,” he says. “It’s unbelievable the support we are getting.”
Based at UMass Lowell’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Wannalancit Mills, Sandbox partners also include Middlesex Community College, Merrimack College, Northern Essex Community College and several local community organizations and businesses.
According to Assoc. Vice Chancellor for Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Steven Tello, more than 40 UMass Lowell student teams have participated in the Sandbox Campus Catalyst program, which awards grants for students to test out their ideas and facilitates networking with successful business people. The budding student-entrepreneurs participating in the program represent a cross-section of majors including business, community health, engineering and psychology. They have developed concepts ranging from Lowell Sprouts (a locally harvested food program for elementary school children) to Five Senses (a virtual reality experience for individuals with disabilities).
“The Sandbox Campus Catalyst program provides funding and supportive mentoring that encourages our students to explore real-world problems and develop creative solutions for them,” says Tello.
For ElKamouny, one of the useful aspects of the Sandbox program has been getting to know key people in Lowell with whom he needs to collaborate on the bike-share venture.
“I grew up on the South Shore and Cape Cod. The Sandbox has helped me establish my network in Lowell,” he says.
ElKamouny and his original partner, Manning School of Business senior Peter Cote, won about $1,700 from business pitch competitions to fund early-stage business development. Cote has since left the venture but ElKamouny is moving ahead, having been accepted into the Sandbox Winter Accelerator program, which offers mentoring from established entrepreneurs, work space, networking events and workshops. The program will culminate in a competition for $25,000 in prizes for the winning businesses.
“Not all projects result in the formation of a start-up company, but the experience helps our students to better understand what is involved in translating ideas into action, and this is a very important lesson,” Tello says.