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Alumni Stories

Igniting a Passion

by Rosalee Maffitt

"Two years ago, our speaker was sitting in your chair. Please welcome Dr. Brittany Barreto."

With those words, Jack Gill — scientist, professor, venture capitalist and philanthropist — introduced the first speaker for the IGNITE 2019 conference for entrepreneurs. In the audience sat seasoned entrepreneurs, generous conference sponsors and students interested in learning about how to create and build high-tech entrepreneurial companies.

Ph.D. students and medical doctors from Rice, UC-Davis, Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute had technical knowhow in computer science, biology, chemistry, physics and medicine to develop technologies. MBA students from Rice, UC-Davis and Lamar had the know-how to monetize and commercialize them.

After spending the previous day visiting startups in the Silicon Valley, everyone had gathered at UC- Davis to listen to a long line-up of entrepreneurs talk about their experiences when taking ideas to market. Barreto kicked it off, describing being a genetics Ph.D. student at Baylor College of Medicine, feeling she hadn’t yet arrived at what she wanted to do, but knowing it was an important stop along the way. She worked countless hours in the lab to advance her professional career and was dating to grow roots in her personal life. Then one day, under the hood in the lab mixing chemicals, she thought, why not use the science I know to create a dating app?

She found a friend who could build the app, gathered a team and started to hustle — sharing her idea with different audiences, beta testing it with consumers and finding investors. Pheramor came into creation. Today, it’s a dating app that matches people using physical chemistry and social alignment. And Barreto has moved from conference participant to lead-off speaker.

She also set the perfect tone. While not sparing the challenges with which she grappled both from entrepreneurial and personal viewpoints, she encouraged the audience to pursue ambitions, making everyone there believe that he or she, too, could be standing at the front of the room, telling everyone about his or her success story.

Over the next two days, entrepreneur after entrepreneur stood at the front of the room, recounting his or her story. Nicholas Seet had created and commercialized audio technology acquired by Adobe. Sally Edwards, an Olympic athlete and founder of the running store Fleet Feet, talked about her new app, Heart Zones. Ben Lyon, a lawyer, talked about his improbable entrepreneurial journey that at one point landed him in Russia in the 1990s. Today, he is working with IMMiX BioPharma to develop and bring novel cancer therapies into practice.

Two speakers, Brad Chisum and Mark Randall, touched on their next phases of entrepreneurship, which actively support the next generation of entrepreneurs. Chisum, CEO of Launch Factory, has created this company to incubate new start-ups. Randall, retired VP of Creativity at Adobe, is now taking his well-known Adobe Kickbox innovation process to a broader audience through foundation work.

Like Barreto, each narrated his or her entrepreneurial journey through a chronological lens that brought technical, business and personal successes and challenges into view. Everyone described different leadership styles, as well as strategies and techniques for developing companies. Their organizational techniques, skills and capabilities also differed. Yet they all shared common attributes — one being key connections to Rice, UC-Davis or Lamar that helped propel them to success. Some had, in fact, participated in the Rice Business Plan Competition.

While entrepreneurship isn’t for the meek, the personal and professional rewards can be phenomenally worthwhile. As they left the conference hall, amused smiles spread across audience members’ faces, as collegial small talk broached the question: Who from this audience might find himself or herself at the front of this room, speaking, in a few years?

Rosalee Maffitt is a 2020 MBA candidate at Rice Business.

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