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Case Western Reserve University’s LaunchNet

Beauty and the Bolt's Xyla Foxlin gets interviewed at her Eureka Park booth

Ten years ago, Bob Sopko wanted to use his tech experience to help Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) students start Onosys, an app that lets customers order pizza from local restaurants. With help from Sopko, Onsys met their first investor, who gave them $500,000 to make their vision a reality. Over the next four years, Onsys doubled their profits, expanded to 4,000 locations and by 2007, sold their company. Today, Sopko’s full-time job is to help student entrepreneurs do what Onosys did.

Sopko and the university started LaunchNet in 2012, a program that turns dorm room businesses into full-fledged money-makers. Since its start, students have launched dozens of companies, made appearances at CES, and raised a total of $6 million in funding.

“Beyond offering afirmations and critiques, we want to provide students with an experience of what the real world of business is like,” says Sopko, who serves as LaunchNet’s director. Students often already have a working invention or business idea, so LaunchNet teaches behind-the scenes skills like how to lead a team, find- customers and everything they need to know about intellectual property and patent infringement. Sopko also teaches them how to get the money they need, whether it’s through grants or competitions, or by connecting students to his 20-year network of tech investors, accelerators and mentors in the Cleveland area.

Case Western’s makerspace, Think[box], also coordinates with LaunchNet. Open to all students as well as visitors, the space offers educational classes and is filled with 3D printers, shop tools, laser cutters and everything needed to start building.

More than 500 students have participated in the program and many have launched new careers. Apollo Medical Devices, founded in 2014, created a device that provides fast and accurate blood tests from a single drop. In 2016, it won a $225,000 National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grant. Boxcast, another LaunchNet success story, offers an easy-to-use live video streaming device used by Cleveland ESPN and Case Western sports teams. LaunchNet companies, Beauty and the Bolt and Reflexion both attended CES on the Hill in April to show congress members and staffs their innovations.

A Visit to CES

When Sopko first brought up the idea of going to CES in 2013, it was a dream come true for Chris Wentz, a senior from that year’s LaunchNet class. Wentz, who developed Everykey – a Bluetooth device that replaces your keys and passwords – saw CES as the tech world’s “Holy Grail.”

LaunchNet already gave Wentz and his co-founders the confidence to start their business, as well as advice on applying for grants and perfecting their ideas. But going to CES made their business a reality. With Sopko’s help, Wentz set up his booth and spent the show making connections and meeting potential investors.

Sopko has since brought a handful of students to display their wares at Eureka Park, CES’ startup-focused market. CES is the perfect experience to help students mature their business and learn what goes into being successful, he says. 

“Even that first year, we got pretty good traffic and made some important business contacts, some of which we still work with to this day,” Wentz says. Since then, Wentz has turned Everykey into his full-time career, launching a successful Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaign as the startup’s CEO. He has also returned to CES
four times, using the show to find new investors and customers.

He hopes to return to CES 2019, bigger and better with a flashier booth outside Eureka Park, holding its own with industry veterans.

Everykey has already crowdfunded their project and are now sending out copies.

Jeremy Snow