College of Science

Panelists offer advice to budding entrepreneurs at College of Science’s Catalyst Competition kickoff


Look at ways to fill unmet market needs. Don’t try to do too much. Surround yourself with people who challenge you and your ideas.

Those are some tips that students heard from successful entrepreneurs and Clemson University College of Science alumni at the kickoff panel discussion and information session for the Catalyst Competition. This new two-semester entrepreneurship challenge culminates in a pitch contest with monetary prizes.

“When you’re thinking about starting a company or developing a product, it’s important that you understand the value of what you’re bringing to the market,” said Susi Robinson at the kickoff event held Oct. 29 in the Watt Innovation Center. Robinson has successfully provided enterprise solutions for global companies and is currently a senior business development executive at Nikia Dx LLC in Charlotte, North Carolina. She volunteers with Innovate Charlotte, serving as a mentor and adviser to entrepreneurs in a startup ecosystem.

Too many startups try to do too much at one time, she said.

Focus is important

“My advice is to focus on one core product or service,” said Robinson, who is a Clemson graduate with a degree in mathematical science. “Make sure you can clearly articulate what you have, why it’s important and why somebody should give up some of their money to pay for your product or service.”

Picture of the audience attending the College of Science Catalyst Competition kickoff
The Clemson University College of Science held a kickoff event Oct. 29 for the Catalyst Competition, a new entrepreneurship challenge culminating in a pitch competition that seeks to support students in developing their innovative business ideas in the areas of science and technology.

Differentiating yourself in the market is critical, said Woody Bryan, the chief business officer at Revolo Biotherapeutics, an emerging global leader in immune-resetting therapies. Bryan serves on the advisory board of the Arthur M. Spiro Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership.

“The business I work in is all about safety and efficacy. We certainly are in tune with where the deficiencies of existing therapies are and how we think what we’re bringing to the table could be better,” Bryan said. 

But what you may think the differentiator is could differ from what the end user thinks it is, he said.

“Your idea about why your product is better is just your idea. You better pressure test it with a tough audience because everyone else will look at it quite differently,” Bryan said.

Robinson added, “You don’t want just to vet your product or service idea with your family and friends because they’re all going to tell you it’s a great idea. You want somebody to challenge you and make you prove to them it actually is a great idea.”

Assembling a team

Jeff Pearson, a patent attorney at Mei & Mark LLP and sponsor of the Catalyst Competition, said assembling the right team is essential.

“The idea is powerful in itself, but then you need to think about what resources do I need to make this idea happen,” he said.

Man with a face shield talks to two students in a hallway
Jeff Pearson (left), a patent attorney at Mei & Mark LLP, talks to students after the College of Science’s Catalyst Competition kickoff event Oct. 29.

Shontavia Johnson, associate vice president for entrepreneurship and innovation in the provost’s office at Clemson, told students to take advantage of all the entrepreneurial and mentorship programs available.

“There are people out there that will help you,” she said.

All the panelists told students confidentiality is important, especially when an idea for a product is in the beginning stages.

“It’s the first person who gets to the patent office. It wasn’t always that way,” Pearson said. “You can protect yourself with very little money.”

Developing entrepreneurs

The Catalyst Competition will expose students in the College of Science to the world of entrepreneurship, from genesis to development to marketing of ideas.

The competition is open to teams of up to five students. At least half of the students on each team must be in a College of Science undergraduate major. Graduate students may participate as part of a team.

The project’s focus must relate in some way to a College of Science major. Each team must have a College of Science faculty or staff mentor.

Each team will receive up to $500 seed money to develop concepts and prototypes. As part of the program, teams receive mentorship and support from working professionals and campus innovation and entrepreneurship program representatives. Following idea development, student teams will pitch their innovations to a panel of judges in March 2022 for a chance to win up to $2,500 in cash prizes.

Applications are due Nov. 29. The College of Science will announce selected teams Dec. 6. 

Robinson’s last piece of advice was simple.

“Believe in yourself,” she said.

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