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Edson grant helps theater grad turn app design into business potential

September 11, 2012

Amanda Nguyen, a theater graduate of the ASU School of Theatre and Film, in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, saw the choreography in her mind, but translating it quickly to the Phoenix area high school glee clubs she directed was another matter. She needed the young performers to see how they as a group moved across the stage.

“The pen and paper blocking method was messy, difficult to edit and not sharable,” Nguyen said. “I started thinking, ‘What if we could slide performer pegs around in an application and project them onto the floor?’’’

What began as a need that kept her up late at night making handwritten “X” and “O” formation charts, developed over 18 months into a business plan for an iPad app that would give stage managers, choreographers, directors and maybe even coaches what she had needed: an easy, effective way to record blocking and project that blocking on a stage.

Now Nguyen, who graduated in May with a bachelor's degree in theater and a minor in dance, is working with two other ASU alumni as part of a team they call BlockLight to design a company logo, complete wire framing for the app and begin development for the initial user testing thanks to a $12,000 ASU Edson grant.

She credits two ASU entrepreneurship programs with helping her move her idea from concept to nearly market-ready.

The first is the Pave Program in Arts Entrepreneurship in the Herberger Institute headed by Linda Essig, professor in the School of Theatre and Film. The Pave program awarded BlockLight a seed grant in September 2011 that Nguyen said was instrumental in helping win one of 20 Edson grants eight months later.

“Composing the grant applications for Pave and Edson led us to explicitly define our mission, vision, market and milestone goals,’’ Nguyen said.

Early on, Nguyen collaborated with two other ASU students. The interdisciplinary nature of the team they formed gave them a competitive edge when it came to competing for the Edson Accelerator Program, according to Brent Sebold, venture manager for ASU’s Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative.

“To be one of the 20 is an absolute achievement,’’ Sebold said. “This is very competitive. There were 340 teams from across the university competing.”

When Nguyen was puzzling through a way to easily show her high school show choir kids their blocking, she brainstormed her problem with JJ Tang, who like Nguyen grew up in the Phoenix area and was a student in Barrett, The Honors College. Tang, who graduated in May with a bachelor's in finance from the W. P. Carey School of Business, said he was intrigued with Nguyen’s dilemma, her passion and the potential marketplace demand. An entrepreneur with two businesses already under his belt, Tang, a two-time Edson grant winner, contacted graphic designer Danny Martinez, an ASU graduate with a bachelor's in graphic information technology, who joined the team.

“When I had the idea it was not refined,’’ Nguyen said. “I had no idea about the app process, but ASU provides a wealth of resources including the ASU New Media Lab and we tried to access every one,’’ she said. “Without Pave, there would have been no Edson.’’ The process not only required them to sharpen their business plan but it gave them experience pitching their idea and credibility before the Edson judges.

“Artists are inherently entrepreneurial, but they don’t always have the support they need to launch their creative work,’’ Essig said. “Pave helps students develop arts-based products and ventures by providing them with seed funding and mentorship so that they can develop a business plan and, if applicable, a prototype. Amanda and JJ were able to leverage that initial development into a successful proposal for the Edson program, which will support further product development.”

Winning an Edson grant means entry into the Edson Accelerator Program at ASU SkySong, which provides budding new ventures with mentors, dedicated desk space, a computer and access to printers, a conference room and accountability. It elevates their enterprise beyond something they’re doing from a garage, Sebold said.

The track record for previous Edson grant winners is impressive, according to Gordon McConnell, executive director of Venture Acceleration for ASU Venture Catalyst. The 26 startups in the previous Edson cohort report nearly one-third in revenue and a combined total of $300,000 raised in additional funding and grants.

BlockLight is using the Edson grant to not only design a logo but to also have a prototype that can be put in the hands of first-time testers. “We’re trying to figure out what to call it and what to price it,’’ Nguyen said.

They also are talking about the future.

“We have been discussing the possibility of branching out to other applications that use the same model,’’ Nguyen said. “For example, coaches could utilize this app to create their game plans. The possibilities are endless and our No. 1 goal is to keep the creative process/plan flowing more smoothly than ever before, no matter what discipline we target.’’

For more information about the Pave Program in Arts Entrepreneurship, visit its website.