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Student "unicorns" pitch tech startups

August 17, 2022

Five students present their startup at the front of a classroom, standing behind a podium with a laptop. Two large overhead projector screens in the background show a cellphone and a digital calendar.

Caption: Members of the SheTrains team pitch their solution: (L-R): Matthew Van Brummelen; Shaun Lyne; Gordon Chiang; Tristan Cusi; and Dave Newcombe

A group of industry professionals described students in a popular fourth-year course as “a class of unicorns,” a common business term that refers to extremely successful startup companies.

During the course — Startup Programming — students formed small teams that designed and developed fully functioning software tools, using advanced mobile, social, cloud and web technologies. But the course doesn’t just focus on technology. Students also learned the business side of developing a new app and what’s involved in creating a startup company from scratch.

This spring, during the final in-person class, six teams – comprised mostly of software engineering and computer science students – presented their software products to a panel of industry and academic experts, who acted as mentors throughout the term.

Margaret-Anne Storey, a professor in UVic Computer Science, led the course, with extensive involvement from Claudia Smith, a professor in the Gustavson School of Business.

“The course gives students great skills in learning about developing a novel application from end to end and in validating it,” said Storey. “It also provides them with a valuable opportunity to learn how to work as part of a team, gain feedback from industry mentors, learn about delivering value from a business perspective, pivot on their ideas, and effectively communicate their projects.”

Learning to launch a startup

During the course, students attended lectures on areas such as customer discovery, product design, user interface design, value proposition curation, and project management. As the six teams began researching and developing a software product, they also undertook the business activities involved in launching a tech startup – from product research and gathering user feedback to marketing and developing a monetization plan.

“It has been really exciting to create a company and to experience the business side of it,” said Tristan Cusi, a member of the team called SheTrains. “Having industry mentors was such an added bonus.”

The SheTrains tool is designed to enable competitive athletes to communicate electronically about their menstrual cycles and symptoms to their coaches in order to help the latter develop more effective, customized training plans. This idea was presented by two students from the Gustavson School of Business who were looking to partner with a team that could help them transform their idea into a tangible app.

SheTrains team members did market research and consulted with athletic coaches, who validated the idea and made helpful suggestions. Though SheTrains still needs some refining, industry mentors and professors agreed the application has potential as a viable venture.

“I love how you incorporated the user feedback you got from coaches, and that you’ve shown us the complexity of your competitors’ products,” said VIATEC’s Chief Operating Officer, and course mentor, Rob Bennett. “This has been a very effective presentation.”

Benefitting from mentors

Along with VIATEC’s Bennett, other members of industry who mentored students throughout the term included: Steve Graham, owner of Evolving Systems Group; Sam Mod, CEO and co-founder of FreshWorks Studio; Steven Myhill-Jones, entrepreneur, investor and founder of Latitude Geographics; and Brandon Wright, founder and CEO of Barnacle Systems.

Smith, an assistant professor in the business school, said that bringing together software development and new venture creation acumen in one course challenged the students’ paradigms.

“They really embraced the messy startup journey,” said Smith. “This, combined with ongoing feedback throughout the term from industry experts, helped teams hone their new product development skills and, importantly, work through the ambiguity inherent in successfully bringing new products to market.”

Aiming to commercialize

One student team, DevXP, created an application that enables software developers to create enterprise-quality cloud infrastructure in five minutes – a complicated process that for some firms can take weeks. Group members said their plan is to commercialize their solution after the course ends.

During the term, DevXP members spoke to potential users, made industry connections, developed a commercialization plan, and even started talking about an exit strategy to eventually sell the company to investors. The course’s five industry mentors were impressed to learn that the DevXP team was recently invited to participate in an industry podcast about their innovation, and also participated in the Planit competition.

“We believe we’re really on to something,” said DevXP team member Derek Robinson. “We plan to make money from it.”

Alessandra Milani, the course’s teaching assistant and a Computer Science PhD candidate, said one of the course’s goals was to provide a safe environment where students can experience the often intense atmosphere of a startup.

“It’s like learning to ride a bike – we can try to follow some rules and listen to guidance, but we only truly learn by trying and falling,” said Milani. “During meetings, students were sometimes a bit insecure about showing a product that was still in progress; but by the end of the course, we received testimonials from students saying how important this process was.”

The course also featured about a dozen guest speakers and alumni, who shared their experiences in launching or working in technology-focused startups. Students incorporated these valuable insights as they iterated on their minimum viable products throughout the term.

Learn more about the mentors, guest speakers, projects and teams on the 2022 Startup Programming GitHub site and see a small selection of student testimonials below.

Student testimonials

"I learned the importance of getting feedback from others and the need to get the app in front of other people as soon as possible as they can easily identify issues or strange user workflows that you may have not found, or initially thought was a good idea but, could be improved upon."
– Sam Kosman, Slacker team

“Aside from the technical aspect of building an app, I also learned lots about building for the consumer. Looking at a product through the lens of a value proposition was eye-opening.”
– Joe Zlonicky, Decidr team

“This course was a huge learning opportunity for both technical and soft skills. Even though I worked at a startup company for a year, the experience isn't the same as building an application from scratch with my peers.”
– Cobey Hollier, Tandem team

“The teaching team and mentors made this the most valuable course I have ever taken and I convinced a few of my friends to take it in the future.”
– Matthew Van Brummelen, SheTrains team

“Thank you so much for an absolutely wonderful semester and I really hope this class will be offered again at some point! Universities need more courses like this one.”
– Sabrina Korsch, DevXP team

“I learned a lot while working on this project, possibly the class that I learned the most from during my four years at UVic.”
– Huy Nguyen, StaShare team