Startup Mason Is Open for Business

Posted: January 6, 2014 at 5:00 am, Last Updated: January 14, 2014 at 11:19 am

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By Cathy Cruise

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Startup Mason connects entrepreneurs with resources, like the equipment available in Mason’s machine shop. Photo by Evan Cantwell

So you have a great idea for a new business. It will make something easier or better. It could change lives, maybe even transform the world.

Now what? How do you take it from concept to company? How do you find financing and support, and how do you get word of its greatness out to the public?

George Mason University’s Startup Mason could be your first stop. This program, created and run by David J. Miller, director of entrepreneurship at the Mason Center for Social Entrepreneurship (MCSE), provides peer-to-peer support for George Mason students, faculty, alumni and community members through feedback sessions, mentor meetings and an entrepreneurship and innovation curriculum.

For a group that began just last year with only four people, the turnout of nearly 50 at Startup Mason’s kickoff meeting in September attests to its growing popularity. Miller, also a PhD candidate in the School of Public Policy, says he started the group in response to students whose ideas had basically outgrown book learning.

“I was getting students who were ready to go beyond the class. So we just started meeting quietly in the Johnson Center, and I thought, well, let’s just turn it into a group.”

Chris Savage, BS Electrical Engineering ’10, founder of True Honey Teas.

Chris Savage, BS Electrical Engineering ’10, founded True Honey Teas with the help of Startup Mason. Photo by Evan Cantwell

MCSE provided a meeting room for the group and now, at any time, “you can walk in and see five to 10 people working here,” Miller says. “And that’s the ultimate goal, to have a central place where people know—if you want to be innovative and creative—this is where you start.”

Startup Mason is an active and vibrant group, with a strong Facebook and Twitter presence and a host of events sponsored throughout the year including open workspace hours; business launch celebrations; Pitch Mason, which allows Mason community members to present their business ideas to a panel of judges before an audience; and Hackathons—where individuals identify and solve cyber problems in a limited amount of time.

Miller instructs emerging entrepreneurs to embrace the “lean startup” method of bringing a concept to fruition, meaning they figure out what problem needs to be solved, discover what they need to learn to solve it and then decide what sort of company to build around it. This method has helped a number of students and alumni create successful ventures, like alumnus Chris Savage, BS Electrical Engineering ’10.

Savage liked the convenience of using Keurig “K cups” to brew tea, but didn’t always have access to the honey he liked to add to the drink. One day he realized he could infuse the honey into the K cup, and True Honey Teas was born.

To create the pods for his True Honey Teas, Savage, with help from machinist Sándor Nyerges, created an assembly-line type of automated system in Mason’s machine shop.

Savage found prototype lids online and contracted with a few family-run, natural apiaries in Maryland. After months of experimenting and garnering positive feedback from others, he knew his idea was ready for the next step. Following the lean startup methodology, he launched a Kickstarter campaign, which ended successfully in June. He’s now busy fulfilling orders from the campaign and his website, truehoneyteas.com.

“My campaign was successful,” he says, “and I got tremendous response and feedback. I’m still trying to stay lean, but the Kickstarter validated [the idea], and gave me the funds to buy my initial line of products.”

Savage is now branching out into the natural foods market by offering True Honey jams, chocolate syrups, spreads and even ketchup. He says the advice, direction and connections he received from Miller and others at Startup Mason has kept True Honey Teas on the path to success. He’s now collaborating with Mason’s own apiary to pair Mason honey with his teas. “I should get enough honey for about 500 pods,” he says. “I can put them in offices around campus.”

More Startup Mason innovations are cropping up every day, according to Miller, who reiterates the importance of helping budding entrepreneurs begin on campus, and then take their ideas far beyond it.

“We know we can’t do everything here,” Miller says. “We need to push them into the real world. But the connections are there. You can work through Mason, and then find a way out.”

Startup Mason holds open entrepreneurship office hours on Mondays and Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Nguyen Engineering Building, Room 4104, during the semester. For more information, visit the Center for Social Entrepreneurship website.

Write to Cathy Cruise at ccruise@gmu.edu

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