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
$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
“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
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
“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
“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
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.