Had he not plugged into the innovation and entrepreneurship program at the Naveen Jindal School of Management, software engineering senior Brian Hoang would likely be headed for a programming career after graduation on May 15.
“I had three corporate internships,” he said. “I probably would have stayed with one of those.”
Instead, Hoang has firmly planted his steps on the path of entrepreneurship. The student team he formed in 2018 recently won the Texas Shark Tank pitch competition at UT Austin, prevailing over 22 other graduate and undergraduate teams from across the state and capping a winning streak that provided him the resources to pursue full-time entrepreneurship.
Texas Shark Tank was the latest competition win for SurviVR, a company that provides virtual reality training programs for law enforcement. The SurviVR team won the grand prize in the campus Big Idea Competition last November and the Audience Choice Award in the Princeton TigerLaunch competition in April. Hoang also recently picked up the Future CEO Award (Undergraduate) at the Jindal School’s 2019 OWLIE Awards.
None of these awards surprised Paul Nichols, academic director of innovation and entrepreneurship programs at the Jindal School, who said Hoang was thoroughly prepared, thanks to having taken multiple JSOM entrepreneurship courses and having participated in the competitions.
“As a result of building the courses and having the extracurriculars, we have created a pathway for anybody to come in with a business idea,” said Nichols, who also is assistant director of the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (IIE). “We give them all these options in which they can try it out, test it out, be rewarded for it financially and have what they need to go out and compete — and even dominate — in competitions around the country. They also get opportunities to meet with investors.”
Harvey Powers, an Austin-based investor who was one of the Texas Shark Tank judges, said SurviVR won for several reasons.
“They had a technology product that exists today,” he said. “They demonstrated its capabilities and have proven that it works,” he said. “The fact that they’ve been able to plug in [to] the sheriff’s departments in North Texas and get those pilots off and running — we were thinking about this in terms of what makes a good investment — and they’ve got a large, addressable market and the ability to take what they’ve built and grow it to an incredible degree.”
That growth, Powers said, can include not only law enforcement but also military.
Finally, SurviVR won because it solves a real-world need. Law enforcement training has become an increasingly high-profile issue, he said, and SurviVR proactively tries to help provide the training and engagement necessary to deal with implicit bias, those positive or negative feelings or thoughts someone might have that stem from unconscious stereotypical beliefs about a person or group of people.
Hoang attributes his success to the influence of his mentor and “personal hero” Bryan Chambers, director of Blackstone LaunchPad, a campus mentoring, networking and resource facility that helps the UT Dallas community pursue entrepreneurial ideas. Hoang credits Chambers with “fundamentally altering” his career path.
“Bryan was patient with me,” he said. “He took me under his wing and helped me establish a foundation. It’s been persistent mentorship from him and other people in the IIE that has gotten me where I am today. If it weren’t for Bryan and everyone else involved with IIE, my life today would look significantly different.”
Hoang, Nichols said, is the perfect example of why the institute has put its resources in place.
“We’ve got programs that can help student entrepreneurship efforts go from birth to maturity,” he said. “That’s why we have the Seed Fund, the Big Idea Competition, all the academic courses and everything else we offer through the institute.”
Nichols said that, depending on which numbers are used, the failure rate for new small businesses and startups is somewhere between 50 and 70 percent within three years.
“Our job is to have students do all that here in the safety of the classroom,” he said. “I want them to take their lumps here rather than going out in the real world, burning through what meager savings they have, making a lot of wrong decisions and turns, running out of money and never accomplishing the milestones they need to succeed.”
His competition awards in hand, Hoang appears to have come out of his student entrepreneurship experience relatively unscathed.
“People see the end result — they might see me onstage giving a pitch that might win a prize or something,” he said. “They don’t really see what’s happened before that or underneath the surface. SurviVR is not our first product idea. We had several — and they all failed, one after the other — and really quickly. SurviVR was a culmination of all these failed ideas.”
That foundation of failed experiments was, Hoang said, what led to SurviVR being able to move so aggressively into competition — and now the marketplace. Including his Texas Shark Tank victory, Hoang’s winnings have totaled about $40,000. Those winnings will allow him and co-founder Marwan Kodeih, a 2018 BS in computer science graduate, to focus on building SurviVR into a company, which, Hoang said, they plan to do full time.
“I think there’s been some healthy investor attention from these competitions based on what we’ve accomplished so far and the strength of our team,” he said. “We’re feeling really good — our plan is to continue SurviVR all the way, though, it’s going to be sort of strange doing it outside the school environment.”
— Jimmie R. Markham