Drake Students Find Success in Start-Ups through ‘Hatchery’ Program

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DES MOINES, Iowa - A year ago, Joaquin Valdes and Aaron Hermsen were just two students at Drake University, attending the same school trip to China. Today, they're business partners, and attribute much of their success to the school they're enrolled in.

For the growing community who wish to see the Metro become the next major start-up haven in the country, students in Drake University's Lorentzen Student Hatchery entrepreneurship program are a welcome sight. The program, in its inaugural year, was founded by Drake alumnus John C. Lorentzen with the intention of fostering students' entrepreneurial endeavors through mentorship and monetary investment.

"Mr. Lorentzen proposed and funded this program specifically to help launch students into real businesses," said Tom Startwood, assistant director of entrepreneurship centers at Drake. "There was no classroom here -- this is not an academic exercise. This is real-world learning through direct experience, and the results are extremely impressive."

Valdes and Hermsen are just one team of four accepted into the Hatchery for its first year. Through a competitive admission process, only about 50% of applicants made the cut. Last spring, the four groups were awarded up to $10,000 in investment from the program, and were given office space at StartupCity in downtown Des Moines to work on their projects. Local business leaders and Drake instructors served as mentors and investors in the Hatchery, giving these students the tools and resources they needed to successfully launch a business.

"Because we were naive enough to think that opening up a shop was really easy," said Valdes. "And then we were like, 'Oh, tools, equipment, an actual shop...we need money.' And that's where, well, Mr. Lorentzen comes in, and he was definitely a huge help."

Over the summer months, Valdes and Hermsen worked to launch their own fixed-gear bicycle shop in Des Moines, Frank's Fixies. The Drake University juniors say their inspiration came from their trip to China last fall, where "fixies", or single-gear/fixed-gear bicycles, are widely popular. After deciding there was a market for this product in Iowa, they applied to be in the school's new Hatchery program.

As the Hatchery begins accepting applicants for its second year Friday, the first class of young entrepreneurs presented final updates on their start-ups to the board of mentors. Other start-up presentations included Opportunity on Deck, a nonprofit organizing free sports leagues for inner-city youth, AP Lumina, an automated brake-light system company, and Reflex Fight Gear, marketing fitness apparel and training gear for martial arts fighters.

While the Hatchery begins selecting its second class of start-ups this year, those in the first wave are far from finished; Valdes and HermsenĀ  say they're even looking into applying to the program again to continue receiving mentorship and investment.

"[We're] not only focusing on the immediate local market, but thinking about shipping across the states," Valdes said. "And that's our main objective. And for that we need an investor to stick with us for a few years, at least."

Ultimately, these entrepreneurs say the experience they've gained from the Hatchery goes beyond the lessons learned in a classroom.

"This is a live representation of how a student in college can actually start something pretty big," said Valdes. "You don't have to wait until you get your degree to start doing the things that you love. So, if you want to start a business, do it now. Don't wait. Eventually, the help will come."