In our recent two-part series on the student entrepreneurs of the University of Michigan at the TechArb accelerator and Innovation in Action program, we profiled a young entrepreneur named Scarlett Ong Rui Chern and her venture called Peerstachio. One of the things that struck me as I interviewed Chern was the sheer number of grants she had managed to wrangle to keep her venture afloat, and the amount of support she had received from TechTown and the University of Michigan programs and departments dedicated to supporting student entrepreneurs. “There are so many resources at U of M,” Chern tells me, “we really have the upper hand.”
Peerstachio connects students in a peer-to-peer social network that helps them reach out for help they might need during their academic career. Chern has been a part of the consulting club at U of M, and won the Campus of the Future competition, which was the first thing that she says pushed her forward with this venture. I sat down with Chern to ask her about her experience connecting with Ann Arbor tech beyond the virtual walls of the abbey of the University of Michigan. As a graduate myself, I well know the dynamics of support within the ecosystem, even as a lowly English grad, but have to agree with people looking from the outside in that the University of Michigan can be a bit of a cold hard monolith for anyone looking to connect from the outside.
Chern says that she got a lot of support from within first, from Innovate Blue, the entrepreneurship promotion program that connects students within the university environment to the entrepreneurship minor. “We got a lot of marketing help,” Chern tells me, “and attended events to help young entrepreneurs to realize ‘hey, you can do this.’ It helped me learn how to put my name out there.” Chern received her first grant from the Zell Lurie Institute for entrepreneurial studies. Then, it started to take off. “A friend of mine found TechTown in Detroit,” Chern says, “and they have lots of relationships with Ann Arbor tech including Ann Arbor Spark. These relationships were the most important mentorship, because they gave us a structured way to think about customer discovery.”
Chern says she is now connecting with three different mentoring programs on campus to test their minimal viable product, and that she has lots of support. The key to keeping on looking for those connections is this, she tells me: “Sometimes the people you don’t expect to support you give you the most support,” she says, “and vice versa. We’ve had a few hiccups that didn’t work out. But for the most part,” she nods and smiles, “we’ve been very supported.”
Peerstachio was just accepted into the Optimize incubator program, and Chern says she’s learning a lot about fleshing out her knowledge of analytics for her business model. She is currently working toward connecting with the provost’s office to propose integrating her platform into the school’s website for student use.
“If you could connect with anyone outside the University of Michigan ecosystem to network for Peerstachio, who would it be?” I asked Chern. She thought about it, but didn’t really miss a beat. “Danny Ellis of SkySpecs talked in our class about growing from a startup to an international company,” she said. “I would love the chance to talk with him further, or with anyone on those topics.” If you would like to connect with Scarlett Ong Rui Chern or the platform Peerstachio is creating, you can email her, or visit Peerstachio’s website.