Student Entrepreneurs Share Their Sontag Stories

By Liset Puentes

In 2011 alumnus Rick Sontag funded The College of Business at the University of Nevada, Reno with the Sontag Entrepreneurship Award, hoping to encourage students to become entrepreneurs. The yearlong competition begins in October and continues onto March where out of the top finalists, one winner receives $50,000 to fund their business venture.

This year the competition attracted 35 business idea submissions of which only four finalists remain. Three of the finalists spoke with the Ozmen Center about their Sontag experience.

“Every year since we’ve been freshmen we’ve been telling ourselves we’re going to do it,” said MacCallister Higgins, a University of Nevada, Reno senior and creator of Nevada Dynamics.

With graduation quickly approaching Higgins and his partner Eric Edgington, a University of Nevada, Reno senior, decided to compete for the Sontag award. Their company, Nevada Dynamics, provides air traffic control for drones.

They plan on integrating drones into the national airspace and provide companies a way to use command and control systems for drones using a satellite network. Currently, according to Higgins, a drone’s flight path can only be controlled manually or using preprogrammed flight paths.

Higgins, a computer science and mechanical engineering major, was exposed to drone technology by working with the autonomous systems innovation center, NAASIC, as well as Flirtey, an Australian drone delivery company.

What started as a senior project with a team of four has evolved into a team of fourteen individuals over the yearlong competition.

The rapid growth of the company was exciting for the team but it did not come without challenges. Higgins admits the team struggled early on when they made decisions before knowing they could secure the resources for their ideas or before doing the proper research.

Higgins has also learned that choosing the right people from the start is crucial to a company’s success. He attributes a large part of their growth to his partner, Erik Edgington, who has communicated the company’s vision effectively to others.

Higgins remarked on the supportive environment the University has provided to make the business possible and is excited to see the University moving towards encouraging an entrepreneurial mindset, an attitude he felt was missing when he first began his studies.

 “I’m just working really hard so I don’t have to make someone else money,” said Higgins.

Win or lose, the team will continue to develop their company.

“The ability to work on something that’s going to change the way we see the world now, that’s very motivating,” said Higgins.

For Meghan O’Neil, creator of Burn Ready and University of Nevada, Reno senior, entrepreneurship was a part of her life long before she could even know she would enter the Sontag competition.

The young figure skater created a product to prevent rusting on ice skates when she was fifteen. O’Neil knew nothing about business and although she received help from her mother the product never took off.

Years later O’Neil now is the creator of Burn Ready, a web based supply company that simplifies event preparation for extreme events. The idea came to O’Neil during a late night discussion with friends at the Wolf Den.

After receiving encouragement from her peers O’Neil presented at Pack Pitch and soon after began developing her business with the help from on campus resources such as the Nevada Small Business Development Center and the University of Nevada, Reno Entrepreneurship Club.

Her decision to compete for the Sontag award was driven by a deadline she had given herself to start her business.

 “With Sontag I was able to make it happen, not just have it be some dream someday,” O’Neil said.

Through Sontag, O’Neil said she was able to learn a lot outside of her management and economics major. She reflected on her growth in the areas of accounting, public speaking, and marketing, all of which she knew nothing of before Sontag.

O’Neil was hit hard by the recession and has worked her way through college. She feels the Sontag competition has changed her future because it has presented a new career path she had never considered.

Presenting for Pack Pitch, O’Neil was shaking as she shared her idea, something that had never happened to the practiced public speaker. She admitted that trusting her idea was challenging since she feared, like many who take risks, the possible rejection of a deeply personal project.

Now she advises entrepreneurs, “Believe in yourself and put in the work – constantly work on the business plan.”

O’Neil’s has seen her confidence surge over the past year and now feels secure choosing entrepreneurship as a path.

“I found a niche and I want to grow it.”

Steven Keim and Keith Szelagowski are both graduate students, their challenge was finding time for their business.

Their company, Adaption, seeks to give smart phone and tablet users the ability to manage and protect their homes with low energy, long-range sensors using Bluetooth technology.

Keim, a Ph.D. student at Arizona State University and UNR graduate, said the Sontag competition allowed the team  to refine their initial idea.

“It has turned a fledgling idea into a full blown business plan by forcing us to challenge the initial weaknesses in the business idea and our product,” Keim said.

What defines an entrepreneur according to Keim, is “Someone who sees an investment opportunity and then intelligently seizes that opportunity.”

Keim believes entrepreneurship can be encouraged with more competitions like Sontag where students are given significant cash awards that can actually provide students with enough capital to fund their company.

“I think most people who don’t choose entrepreneurship simply don’t know where to start,” Keim said.

The team utilized many on campus resources as well as the expertise from College of Business advisors to form their business plan and strategy. Finding partners in areas they felt they lacked experience was a challenge for the graduate students.

Marketing, unfamiliar to Keim, proved difficult because not only did he not understand the company’s marketing needs he also did not know what makes an effective marketer, making the decision of finding the right partner more difficult.

“It’s also important for an entrepreneur to see problems when they’re there, lest he or she make a poor investment decision,” said Keim.

The winning team will not only receive $50,000 but they will also be assisted in the development of their business including mentorship from community business leaders.

Liset Puentes is an intern at the Ozmen Center for Entrepreneurship. She can be reached at LinkedIn