File photo of previous CYstarters startup

Students in the CYstarters cohort have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of others who successfully launched their business. File photos by Christopher Gannon.

Story courtesy of Iowa State University News Service

This story is part of a series about CYstarters, Iowa State’s startup accelerator that helps students become entrepreneurs.

AMES, Iowa – With as much as $13,000 at stake, expectations were high. Judges were looking for viable, well-conceived concepts worthy of the investment. Those vying for the funding had 10 minutes to make their case.

“The pitch is everything. I want to know how invested they are in the idea,” said Dave Sly, senior lecturer in industrial and manufacturing systems engineering and one of six judges who helped select the 2018 CYstarters cohort.

CYstarters, a 10-week accelerator coordinated through Iowa State University’s Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship, is open to ISU students and recent graduates. Of the nearly three dozen applicants this spring, judges invited 26 individuals and teams to pitch their business concepts. Some pitches focused on business plans and market analyses; others demonstrated prototypes or offered product samples.

The 15 startups selected for this year’s cohort are working on everything from a pet safety restraint system to human nutritional supplements. As the CYstarters name suggests, many of the startups are in the early stages of development and have different needs. Diana Wright, program coordinator for the Pappajohn Center, says ideally, each startup in the cohort will meet the following requirements:

  • The concept identifies and addresses a problem or opportunity
  • The product or service is viable and has a competitive advantage
  • The student or team is coachable and a good fit for the cohort

This is the third CYstarters cohort, and Wright says the selection process gets harder each year. She says more students are taking advantage of pitch competitions, entrepreneurship courses in the classroom, entrepreneurial speaker series and the entrepreneur club, and it is paying off in their pitches.

“They are learning so much through these opportunities that when we see them pitch, we see some really solid ideas,” Wright said. “You can tell they really have their heart in their business.”

More than money

The infusion of cash – $6,500 for individuals and $13,000 for teams – allows students to focus solely on their business, without having to juggle a part-time job for the summer. The financial incentive is what makes CYstarters different from the ISU Startup Factory and other entrepreneurial initiatives. However, it is the accountability and networking, as much as the money, that students value, Wright said.Students working in CYstarters lab

Students are required to attend weekly accountability sessions to review their accomplishments, goals and failures and often have “homework” assigned for the following week. They also attend educational workshops on customer discovery, product development, legal, finance and marketing. Wright says throughout the 10 weeks, students interact with as many as 60 to 70 mentors.

“It’s an intense 10 weeks,” Wright said. “What started with imagining the ultimate program for student entrepreneurs at Iowa State has grown to become a successful pathway that provides the CYstarters a safety net to start something now.”

Helping students identify as entrepreneurs

Applicants for this summer’s cohort came from all seven ISU colleges, which is a credit to efforts by Wright and Judi Eyles, director of the Pappajohn Center, to get more students involved by hosting pitch competitions in each college. Wright says most students do not initially see themselves as entrepreneurs, and often “stumble into” entrepreneurship after listening to a lecture on the topic or watching a pitch.

Sly agrees. He launched his software company as a student at Iowa State, but never considered himself an entrepreneur. In fact, Sly says he went to career fairs thinking he needed to get a “real job” after graduation. He changed his thinking after a recruiter pointed out that the job Sly was applying for paid less than what he was making from his business.

The landscape for entrepreneurs has changed dramatically since Sly graduated. Still, he feels there is untapped potential on campus that could benefit from CYstarters. He works to instill “a mindset of entrepreneurship” in class to encourage students to pursue ideas for a startup.

“I do wonder how many students are doing great entrepreneurial things, but don’t see themselves as entrepreneurs or are unaware of the opportunities,” Sly said. “We need to somehow reach a wider body of students and get them thinking about these entrepreneurial opportunities.”

Read more about the program at