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UB student entrepreneurs flourish

Darren Cotton

When he opened the University Heights Tool Library, Darren Cotton envisioned the library as a mechanism for bettering the community. Photo: DOUGLAS LEVERE

Published May 24, 2013

“We received a lot of support and assistance from the UB community that helped us build early confidence and momentum”
Eric Reich, UB entrepreneur

It takes hard work and guts to transform a great idea into a viable business or community organization, but UB students are doing it every day with support and encouragement from the university. Each of the UB entrepreneurs profiled below endured long hours and surprising obstacles to succeed. None regretted it. Some advice for fellow innovators, as voiced by tech firm founder Ansar Khan, a member of UB’s Class of 2011: “I would encourage any student who has a business idea to go out there and give it a shot. Even if you fail, you’ll learn so much along the way.”

$25,000 award creates $40 million firm

Flashback to the late 1990s, before the dot-com bubble burst, when dropping out of college, as evidenced by Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and other tech luminaries, had become the trendy path to success for young entrepreneurs.

Eric Reich and Michael Weisman weren’t buying it.

Instead of jumping into the hard-nosed world of venture capitalism, the childhood friends enrolled in UB’s MBA program, won a coveted entrepreneurial award from the university and ultimately created a company worth more than $40 million.

“We like to refer to it as ‘dropping in,’” says Reich, who along with Weisman, spent countless hours both inside and outside the classroom with UB faculty and administrators refining their business plan.

The idea—to build a data-centric company that helps colleges and universities decide how to best allocate resources, recruit and retain students, and improve student success—won UB’s first Henry A. Panasci Jr. entrepreneurship award in 2001. Reich and Weisman used the $25,000 prize to create StudentVoice, a class project that eventually would become one of Western New York’s most successful startups in recent memory.

“We received a lot of support and assistance from the UB community that helped us build early confidence and momentum,” Reich says.

The company, which now operates as Campus Labs, has more than $10 million in annual sales and more than 650 higher education clients. It has 90 employees in downtown Buffalo and at a smaller office in Atlanta. Years of hard work, persistence and ingenuity were realized when Connecticut-based Higher One Holdings acquired Campus Labs for more than $40 million in August.

Working with Higher One will enable Campus Labs to remain in Buffalo while expanding into new markets and adding to its workforce, Weisman says.

“We plan to continue to grow in Buffalo and hire a lot more people here,” he says.

Building community with borrowed tools

We’ve all been there before: You have a small home-improvement project in mind—hanging a picture, or painting a room. But you don’t want to buy that power drill you’ll never use again, or those paint trays and rollers that will go straight into storage.

That’s the situation that Darren Cotton faced during his senior year at UB in 2009. He was fixing up an apartment near the South Campus and found himself raiding his parents’ toolbox to do the job. The experience laid the foundation for the University Heights Tool Library, a tool-lending library that Cotton, an emerging social entrepreneur, opened in 2010.

To get the organization running, a UB business student helped write a business plan. Buffalo Common Councilmember Bonnie Russell provided city funding. Cotton and his friends spent hours after classes renovating the library storefront. “We would come here at 8 or 9 o’clock at night and work on painting a wall or building a shelf,” says Cotton, who received BA in international studies and linguistics in 2010 and a MUP in urban planning in 2012.

The dedication paid off.

About 150 members have joined the library, borrowing tools for a $10 annual fee. It has been a great fit for the neighborhood, which houses many students and low-income renters—people who have little incentive to buy their own tools.

Operating under the University Heights Collaborative, a nonprofit neighborhood group, the library has become an important local resource. It has supplied tools for street cleanups and a community garden project. Future plans include hosting “do-it-yourself” workshops that focus on tasks like repairing windows or building rain barrels. From the beginning, Cotton envisioned the library as a mechanism for bettering the community, and it’s exciting to watch that happen.

“It’s amazing to see the different projects this helps facilitate. I wish there were more projects like this, where people share resources,” Cotton says. “Not everyone needs to own a circular saw.”

Taking restaurant orders? There’s an app for that

James O’Leary was waiting tables at Ansar Khan’s family restaurant in Williamsville, Kabab & Curry, when he had an epiphany: Why not simplify the process by finding a way to digitize food and drink orders? He was tired of trying to decipher his own messy handwriting on guest checks.

He shared his idea with Khan, and Refulgent Software took off from there. Together, the partners developed Ambur, a restaurant app that lets servers take orders on an iPod and send requests to the kitchen wirelessly.

Ambur debuted at the Apple store in April 2011 following a successful pilot at Kabab & Curry. The client list has grown to more than 300 restaurants in 14 countries, from family-owned enterprises to Chobani yogurt’s new SoHo store.

Refulgent Software employs nine people, almost all of them UB students or former graduates. Revenue is on track to reach $850,000 this year. The success landed Khan, who earned a BS in biological sciences in 2011, a spot on Forbes magazine’s 2012 list of All-Star Student Entrepreneurs. The list featured nine young entrepreneurs who started significant businesses while still in school.

Khan and O’Leary, who expects to graduate from UB in 2014 with a BA in communication, say they’re proud to provide a service that helps small businesses get off the ground. As the son of Pakistani immigrants who opened a restaurant, Khan understands how difficult it is to turn a profit in the food service industry. He and O’Leary bill their app as one “designed by and for people who actually work at restaurants.” They don’t levy a monthly fee or charge for upgrades. That philosophy is what sets Refulgent Software apart from competitors—and what makes O’Leary and Khan’s work rewarding.

“I would encourage any student who has a business idea to go out there and give it a shot,” Khan says. “Even if you fail, you’ll learn so much along the way.”

New players in the world of games

Anna Zykina Bacorn and Greg Bacorn didn’t get along—at first—when they met in a leadership class in spring 2007, their last semester at UB.

“We both have strong personalities. We were very independent and constantly butted heads,” remembers Greg, who received a BA in history. “Halfway through the class, we were forced to do a project and we realized that we actually worked very well together and had many things in common.”

The class partnership evolved into a real-world business union when Anna and Greg came up with a great idea for upgrading a popular arcade game product: adding a ticket dispenser to the traditional air hockey table. Anna’s father, an entrepreneur who owns the largest arcade game distribution company in Russia, became a role model and adviser, encouraging the partners to start their own company, Barron Games.

Anna, who helped run her father’s international firm, took the lead in writing a business plan. To promote Barron Games, Anna and Greg traveled to trade shows in places like Orlando, Las Vegas, Russia, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Colombia and more. The partners celebrated their first big sale in November 2007.

Today, Barron Games builds customized products ranging from interactive photo booths to the QuadAir—a multi-player air hockey table that Anna, Greg and partners developed. Clients include local businesses like Bounce Magic family entertainment center, national chains like Dave & Busters and international brands such as SEGA Amusements.

Running a business isn’t always easy: Anna and Greg, now married and new parents, often wake up at odd hours to field calls from customers around the world. But the long days—and nights—are worth it. Anna, who earned a BA in social sciences interdisciplinary studies, international business and German, says her achievements are a particular point of pride as a woman in a male-dominated industry.

“I would like to think of myself being successful, as I created a prospering business providing outstanding products that bring joy and fun to our customers,” she says.

Sometimes, people unfamiliar with Barron Games don’t take it seriously because the owners and company are so young—“new school,” as Anna says. But the firm’s track record of success and quality of products eventually wins clients over.

Sorting through a world of apps

Two years ago, Matthew Epstein and Andrew Cassetti were discussing their smartphone apps when they had an idea. Epstein had owned an iPhone since the day the product came out in 2007; Cassetti was an Android user, but both were frustrated with the process of finding apps.

The marketplace was so overcrowded that it was nearly impossible to evaluate and differentiate what was out there. Each asked the other for suggestions on which apps to use and they realized that they had stumbled upon a solution to the problem. A recommendation from a trusted person holds more weight than an anonymous review on the Web, they realized, and this became the basis for AppVue.

AppVue is an app that improves the mobile-device experience by enabling users to discover and see the apps used by people they trust, including friends, family, colleagues, experts and even celebrities. It can be used on its own or in conjunction with social networks like Facebook to enhance the experience.

Epstein and Cassetti put their idea to the test by entering UB’s Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition (Panasci TEC) in 2011—and lost. But they learned from the experience and entered the competition again in 2012, this time winning $25,000 in startup funding, as well as in-kind services valued at more than $10,000. They both earned a BS in business in 2012.

“It’s important to have a product to display,” says Cassetti, AppVue’s executive vice president of product. “The Panasci judges were able to experience some of the benefits of our app firsthand and it made us more than just an idea on paper.”

Company CEO Epstein, who expects to receive an MS in accounting from UB in 2013, gained some wisdom from the experience, as well. “We got great feedback from some distinguished judges and others, and we used the lessons learned to improve our product and get investors,” he says. “You should never quit or give up on something you believe in.”

Today, the company is located in Z80 Labs, downtown Buffalo’s tech incubator. AppVue will be available in Apple’s App Store in fall 2012.