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ASU business students' Balloon venture rises high in Euro competition

ASU MBA students at European Innovation Academy

(From left) Clemens Ehrenreich from the University of Natural Resources & Life Sciences in Vienna, Austria; Michael Ha and Christian Østergaard Laursen from Aarhus University in Denmark; and MBA students Megan Kirk and Elizabeth Oviedo from the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University formed the team that created Balloon Balloon at this summer's European Innovation Academy.<br><br> Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Oviedo

August 11, 2015

Placing in the top 10 at an international competition was the venture team’s plan from the moment it formed — but the journey there involved a few unexpected twists.

Arizona State University MBA students Megan Kirk and Elizabeth Oviedo first met in Lean Launch, a course for students interested in working on a start-up venture. The course is led by Sidnee Peck, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the W. P. Carey School of Business.

Although Kirk and Oviedo worked on different concepts in class, they paired up when both were invited to the European Innovation Academy with nine other ASU students in July.

Their initial business idea of an online tool for teachers attracted the interest of developer Christian Østergaard Laursen and designer Michael Ha from Aarhus University in Denmark and developer Clemens Ehrenreich from the University of Natural Resources & Life Sciences in Austria, who also attended the academy.

The five-person team set a goal of placing in the top 10, making intentional decisions to network broadly and to get as much feedback from customers and mentors as possible. Not only did they achieve their goal, but their start-up was selected among the “best of show” in product development and design.

“It was a really amazing and intense experience. It surpassed all of my expectations,” said Kirk, an evening MBA student who works in human resources for First Solar. “Over the course of the program I was able to work with mentors and students from around the world, which broadened my perspective in ways I had never before experienced.”

Peck said the conference has the energy of a weekend hack-a-thon maintained over three weeks. Each morning, the more than 450 students attended instructional seminars lead by professors, entrepreneurs and industry experts from such well-known technology companies as Google, Garage Technology Ventures, Rovio Entertainment and Spotify. Afternoons were dedicated to working on their own start-ups and getting advice from the more than 80 mentors, many successful entrepreneurs themselves.

Based on feedback from potential customers, the team pivoted from the original idea within the first week. The new product, called Balloon Balloon, focuses on parents and their children’s caretakers. Peck said most start-ups pivot many times during development if they are talking to customers and truly listening to their needs.

“It’s a challenge to create and develop a concept, knowing that at any given moment you can uncover something that will change your direction,” said Oviedo, a full-time MBA student who gives credit to the entire team for the ability to embrace change and adapt.

Peck described the interaction of members of an entrepreneurial team as a three-legged stool encompassing design, engineering and business. Without each other, the business doesn’t operate effectively. Kirk agreed.

“I learned first-hand the importance of a strong team that relies on one another and on the specialized skill sets each person brings,” Kirk said. “I may have experience in business, but I have to communicate the business decisions being made to the developers and designer so they can work on the project in a way that supports those decisions. There has to be a good level of respect, trust and open communication. The partnership is crucial. Without that, nothing can be achieved. Any one of us might have the greatest idea in the world, but we wouldn’t have been able to execute on it alone.”

Although the conference is over, the team members continues to work on their start-up. Fully aware that there are more pivots ahead, the team has shifted the high expectations and focus from top 10 to a successful launch.