A team of University of Wisconsin Oshkosh students is preparing to test a product they say will improve survival of delicate honey bee colonies in cold weather climates.
In 2018, the UW Oshkosh Alta Resources Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI) partnered with WiSys—a nonprofit dedicated to helping inventors protect their intellectual property—to create a unique opportunity for entrepreneurial students.
“We connected with UW Oshkosh’s CEI to create the WiSys Entrepreneur Program with the goal of creating new ventures around WiSys technologies,” said Jennifer Souter, associate director. “The idea was to pair inventors with entrepreneurial students to take a single product to market.”
Three UW Oshkosh business administration majors were selected for the CEI team: senior Jessica Tarter of Sommerset, junior Parker Schmidt of Combined Locks and then-senior (now alumnus) Macall Hill, ‘19 of Darien. The trio was presented with five possible products to take to market.
After conducting market research on all five products the team chose the Bee Shield™, originally invented by UW-Superior biology professor and apiary manager Edward Burkett and friend and colleague Kenn Raihala.
The Bee Shield™
The shield idea came to Burkett in 2016 after all the hives in the UW-Superior bee apiary were lost during the winter months. Raihala, a retired mechanical engineer, helped Burkett design the original prototype as part of a research study on protecting future bee colonies. The patent was almost an afterthought.
While the students knew nothing about bees when they started this process, through their market research they quickly confirmed the product could serve as a very important solution to a very complex problem.
“We learned a lot about bees from Dr. Burkett. One of the biggest challenge beekeepers face is keeping their bees alive. Beekeepers in the United States lose about 30 percent of their hives during the winter months, with areas in the Upper Midwest losing as much as 50 percent and the bee shield has the potential to revolutionize the internal environment to retain more heat and increase the bees’ potential of survival,” Schmidt said.
Burkett and Raihala recently met with the Hive Central team to learn about their product modifications and give feedback on the functionality it will have for the bee colonies.
“Kenn and I are thrilled that the Hive’s shield will be taken to market and are hopeful that it will make a significant impact on the survival of future bee colonies,” Burkett said.
UW Oshkosh Alta Resources Executive Director Colleen Merrill and Director Dan Brosman met weekly with the student team to review their progress and connect advisory mentors (i.e., manufacturers, attorneys, accountants, marketers, etc) who provided intensive 1v1 business consulting to the team. In addition to these weekly meetings, the team also enrolled in the CEI’s spring and summer accelerator programs where they learned lean startup curriculum practices to effectively validate their assumptions of the businesses.
Throughout the process, the students worked towards efficiently dividing up the work but Schmidt admits they came into the process a bit naïve.
“You think that entrepreneurship is ultimately picking a product and selling it,” he said. “It seems like a straight line but the process comes with highs and lows and is a bit all over the place.”
Eventually, the students found their groove and chose different areas to focus on: Schmidt has been managing the $25,000 grant process, Tarter is the head of marketing and Hill has been working with the physical product. Together they put each other in places to succeed. The students say they couldn’t have done it without the support of the CEI leadership, the inventors Burkett and Raihala, WiSys leadership and the engineering department.
“We have received an overwhelming amount of support from everyone,” Tarter said. “Colleen put us in touch with so many mentors and resources that allowed us to be where we are today with our company.”
Merrill said the program has exceeded expectations and truly gave the students a true entrepreneurial startup experience focused on product development and sales. The program will repeat on a yearly basis giving additional student teams real-world entrepreneurial experience with the potential to launch a company and generate revenues.
“We are extremely proud of our students, they jumped in with their whole hearts, learning from and embracing every challenge while staying nimble and receptive to feedback,” Merrill said. “This ultimately helped the students form a very cohesive team. It’s almost unheard of.”
The business and the future
The students formed their company Hive Central around the product and continuing work on developing their website. But the story is far from complete.
This winter, the team will engage bee hobbyists to conduct additional research in cold weather climates before they fully launch an online store and start selling the product to the masses.
Hill says they are eager to get some data on the Bee Shield™ to validate the product’s effectiveness.
“Current winterizing products on the market do not have any research behind them and have even shown to have no effect at all. With over 200,000 hobbyist beekeepers with approximately 1,630,000 hives (in U.S. cold weather climates), we want to make sure our product stands out from the competition,” Hill said.
WiSys has an expansive portfolio of intellectual property and leaders are eager to see what product the next UW Oshkosh CEI student team will bring to market.
“This project is a great example of our vision for this program,” Souter, of WiSys said. “The partnership with UWO has supported a hands-on learning opportunity for the students taking part and we have been pleased with the progress Hive Central has made.”