Home Design At MSU, student entrepreneurs find startup success before graduation

At MSU, student entrepreneurs find startup success before graduation


EAST LANSING – Brianna Makaric’s company was barely off the ground last November when she decided to take part in the annual Making it in Michigan Conference and Marketplace Trade Show at the Lansing Center.

More than 200 Michigan-made food products were represented at the day-long event and Makaric, 21, wanted the chance to show off BRITE bites. She’d spent months developing the the probiotic snack bites, perfecting recipes in her apartment’s kitchen. 


Makaric spent countless Saturdays standing at local fitness studios and stores, offering people samples from tupperware containers and asking for feedback, all while attending Michigan State University. 

The trade show was another chance to market them, but her decision to be there flew in the face of the advice people had offered.

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Michigan State student Bri Makaric, photographed on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, at The Hatch in East Lansing, founded Brite Bites, a superfood snack, because she struggled with her own health. They are sold at Horrocks, Foods for Living and more than a dozen other places around Lansing, 30 total in Michigan. Soon they’ll be available through Amazon. (Photo: Nick King/Lansing State Journal)

You shouldn’t be there yet, she remembers hearing.

“I decided we should still go,” Makaric said. “We’re ready and we’re going to learn. You’re going to take those opportunities. You might fail a little bit but you’re going to learn from it.”

Last week BRITE bites was back at the same trade show, but this time as a featured business, worlds ahead of where it was a year ago. BRITE bites is now on the shelves in 30 stores, hospitals and coffee shops around the state, and last week sales launched on Amazon.

Makaric plans to graduate from MSU in May, and focus on growing her business. It’s her future, she said, and support and financial help she received at The Hatch, an incubator space on campus where students take ideas and turn them into startup businesses, made that possible.

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Brite Bites, photographed on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, at The Hatch in East Lansing, are superfood snacks founded by Michigan State student Bri Makaric because she struggled with her own health. They are sold at Horrocks, Foods for Living and more than a dozen other places around Lansing, 30 total in Michigan. Soon they’ll be available through Amazon. (Photo: Nick King/Lansing State Journal)

At the incubator, part of the Discovery Program at MSU’s Burgess Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, teams of student entrepreneurs have access to mentors, resources and funding as they launch their companies. The program gets about 250 applicants a year.

Students at The Hatch say the resources there are invaluable, and some say they’ll keep growing their business after they graduate. Even if they don’t, program officials said MSU’s entrepreneurial education efforts are working.

This monththe Princeton Review ranked MSU number 16 among its “Top 50 Undergrad Programs for Entrepreneurs” in 2020.

MSU has created an ecosystem that fosters entrepreneurs, said Paul Jaques, director of student and community engagement for the Discovery Program. 

“The number one goal is not for them to take their company and start the next Facebook,” he said. “I think our main goal is to have them leave the university with an entrepreneurial mindset.”

An incubator to support startups

From its incubator space on the third floor of a building on East Grand River Avenue in downtown East Lansing, the Hatch provides a home base for student entrepreneurs to work on everything from an operating budget to packaging design.

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A view of The Hatch, a space where Michigan State University entrepreneurs can work on startup companies while collaborating with each other and staff, photographed on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, at The Hatch in East Lansing. (Photo: Nick King/Lansing State Journal)

Six employees and anywhere from 12 to 15 interns work with students there. They help with graphic and web design, legal issues and marketing.

Students coming into The Hatch often don’t have much money to fund their own idea, Jaques said. Hatch staff help students apply for grants and research pitch competitions that offer money, he said.

The Hatch also offers financial help through endowment funding. Approximately $85,000 in grants is awarded to student teams at The Hatch every year, said Aaryn Richard, communications director for the Burgess Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation.

Lori Fischer, events and student program manager at Spartan Innovations, manages The Hatch. She said hundreds of alumni have served as mentors for teams since its start seven years ago.

“They’re not alone in this journey,” she said. 

Josh York, 26, started his business before he transferred to MSU but The Hatch helped him shape it.

York graduated in 2016. Today York Project, a clothing company that donates necessities to help the homeless each time they sell a product, is based in Detroit.

York credits The Hatch staff and interns with helping him to design a website and find suppliers for his clothes. He was making garments by hand himself when he started with the program. Incubator funding paid for business cards and promotion, York said. 

“Right away they took an interest in what I was doing and wanted to help,” he said. “The biggest resource The Hatch provided was connecting me with people. The money was great, but the resources and the support were crucial.”

Today York Project works with a student startup at the Hatch, and York doles out advice, answering questions about business issues he’s struggled with himself.

York said he urges students to make connections before they leave MSU.

“The real value of Michigan State is the people I met,” he said.

Building businesses before graduation

Josh Cooper, 20, didn’t know The Hatch existed two years ago. He was a freshman living in the dorms when he founded Skoop.

The digital advertising technology company is aimed at digitizing and customizing advertising found on buses, billboards, benches and taxis. It got its start with Skoop’s own fleet of bike taxis.

Skoop, a company founded by Michigan State University student Josh Cooper, was launched with bike taxis on MSU campus, but today the digital advertising technology company is focused on customizing advertising found out-of-home. (Photo: Photo courtesy of Josh Cooper)

“We decided we should take our own fleets and try and be the first people to not only affix digital signage to those fleets, to digitize those ads, but see if we could bring in enough digital advertising revenue to offset the cost of the ride completely,” Cooper said.

In less than two years Skoop was operating fleets in East Lansing, Royal Oak and New Jersey.

Skoop joined The Hatch at the beginning of this year. The incubator has since funded business travel and the business was awarded a $15,000 grant.

But Cooper said the business mentors he’s met there have been equally important.

“To be able to talk with a mentor who’s in your field, you can’t put a price on that,” he said.

Technology is a big focus for Skoop moving in to 2020, Cooper said. Other taxi companies are now using Skoop’s hardware and technology. So are restaurants.

“It’s a real market need and that’s kind of the void that we’re filling here,” Cooper said.

Bailey Paxton, 22, has been part of The Hatch since his freshmen year at MSU. His company, AgileCare Solutions, offers a mobile application that connects families with caregivers and helps track real-time data about the people being cared for.

Bailey Paxton, a Michigan State Unverrsity student and founder of AgileCare Solutions, a mobile application that connects families and caregivers. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

The Hatch supported its growth, Paxton said.

“Any time you ever have any questions they are there to help,” he said. “It’s been a tremendous asset for us. I’ve been able to leverage school to help me with my startup. Really, it’s the way education should be.”

Success outside of MSU

When Makaric graduates she knows many of the resources she’s used at The Hatch won’t be there, but she plans to grow BRITE bites.

“It is scary, but I think we’ve gotten to a point right now where we know what we need to do, and I think that even though I will graduate I’ll still have those mentors and that’s really want’s invaluable,” Makaric said. “A space is nice, but I can get office space somewhere else. It’s the mentors, that connection.”

The Hatch provides students with a huge advantage, Jaques said, but student entrepreneurs have to be committed to make a startup work. 

Makaric has done that, he said.

“I was just looking at Bri’s packaging today,” Jaques said. “Just seeing her from day one, just this little package with a sticker on it.”

Now the package for BRITE bites fit in among the other products developed by national companies on the shelves at stores like Horrocks in Delta Township, he said.

“To see that, to see it from when I first met her and to see her grow and see her being confident and pitching at competitions, it’s amazing now.”

Fischer said MSU’s efforts to foster entrepreneurial growth are evolving. Eventually, she said, the goal is to hear students say they are choosing MSU because of them.

“We’re moving so quickly,” she said. “It’s evolving and changing every single year. We have to continue to get better.”

Makaric said she hopes to mentor MSU students in her position someday. What would she tell them?

Don’t be intimidated, she said, and don’t give up.

“I hope to not scare them,” Makaric said. “I don’t want to intimidate them by saying ‘This is how much work it’s going to take, and it’s not pretty. It’s not glamourous and easy. There’s sleepless nights.’ I’d want to make sure I provide value to get them to the next step.”


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