CSUN Student Entrepreneurs Embrace a Reimagined Bull Ring

Photo courtesy of Ryan Holbrook

A screenshot of a virtual Bull Ring workshop on Legal Considerations for Startups with Rick Friedman (top left) with the law firm Novus GC. 

Orders to “stay safe at home” have not dampened the entrepreneurial spirit of California State University, Northridge students who, despite the suspension of the final rounds of CSUN’s Bull Ring New Venture Competition, are determined to learn all they can to turn their business ideas into reality.

 Hours the 20 teams of students traditionally spent prepping for the Bull Ring’s ultimate contest — in which five final teams compete for the top three cash prizes totaling $35,000 in a competition hosted by CSUN’s David Nazarian College of Business and Economics and generously supported by CSUN alum Jeff Marine and his family — are now being spent working closely, virtually, with dedicated mentors from the business community and participating in virtual workshops and office hours sessions. These resources — provided by long-time partners of the competition including law firm Novus GC, venture investor MiLA Capital, business growth studio Steamwork Center and the SBDC at College of the Canyons — are intended to provide a virtual equivalent to many aspects of the in-person experience.

The top 20 teams were each awarded $500, instead of the usual $250, and have remained engaged and eager to learn, even in the absence of subsequent prize money.

“Our students are proving that, despite the lack of normalcy in today’s world, true entrepreneurs can’t be deterred,” said Ryan Holbrook, director of the entrepreneurship program in the Nazarian College. “It’s been great to see such a high level of engagement and commitment from our teams, particularly given the circumstances.”

In normal times, the Bull Ring is launched early in the spring semester. Student teams from across campus are invited to submit their ideas for new business ventures. Twenty teams are then selected to present their work at the semi-finals, usually held in early April. At that event, five teams are selected by a panel of entrepreneurs and industry leaders to compete in the finals later that month. The winning team earns a $20,000 grand prize, $10,000 goes to the second-place team and $5,000 to the third.

As in past years of the competition, the student ideas were diverse both in terms of the students’ disciplines and the ideas themselves. Seven of the nine colleges at CSUN were represented in the initial applications, of which there were 46, with ideas including hardware, eCommerce, mobile apps and digital platforms, sustainability, packaged food and education.

One venture led by MBA student Matt Smalley, Delphire, is a real-time, wildfire surveillance system to remotely monitor wildfire progress and provide local actionable information to firefighting teams.

“The competition has been a great resource,” Smalley said. “The mentor that was matched with us, John (Ko), has extensive experience in hardware and software and is a great fit for us. His advice has been really helpful, as have the virtual workshops and other resources.”

John Ko, a serial entrepreneur and regular mentor for the competition, said that he remained involved in the Bull Ring because it gives him a chance to give back to aspiring entrepreneurs, while also honing his own craft.

“It’s been said that the best way to learn is to teach, and I’ve certainly found that to be the case,” Ko said. “I’ve been a first-time entrepreneur before, so I know not only how tough it can be, but also the importance of mentorship. I’ve enjoyed working with Delphire and look forward to seeing them continue to refine their concept and bring it to market.”

As for the competition, Holbrook said that while he was looking forward to the excitement and energy of the in-person events, the original intent of the competition remains.

“The learning, the feedback, and the community-building have always been the heart and soul of the Bull Ring, and our goal has been to provide our students with a similarly impactful, yet entirely virtual experience.”

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