Business barriers lead CMU students to a new venture

Friends find opportunity by taking ‘no’ as inspiration

| Author: Andrea Mestdagh

If at first you don't succeed, solve the problem that held you back.

That's what two Central Michigan University business students did this year as part of CMU's New Venture Competition, a forum for flexing entrepreneurial muscle. Justin Ashman and Philip Mundt won the competition's Up and Coming Award, including a $3,000 first prize, presented at a virtual awards ceremony Friday, April 23.

Their 3-D printing operation, Form Further, can produce 200-300 pieces a week to fill small orders. It has produced about 1,000 parts for paying clients so far.

"We basically cut expenses for small businesses and entrepreneurs," said Mundt, a student in CMU's Master of Entrepreneurial Ventures accelerated degree program. He earned his undergraduate degree in entrepreneurship with a finance minor in November 2020.

The pair are New Venture Competition veterans whose separate business startup ideas from last year's competition hit the same dead end: No parts maker would accept the small production orders they needed at a price they could afford.

So, this year, they joined forces to become the parts maker. They call their business Form Further and describe it as a rapid prototyping and small-volume production firm.

Mundt said it will take time and care to scale up production in the fledgling company currently operating out of his home.

"It's in the basement right now," he said, "where all great businesses start."

Venturing forward

The year-long New Venture Competition challenges students to turn their ideas into successful businesses with help from educational workshops and business mentors. Winners in a variety of categories earned cash prizes Friday, April 23. Here's more about the 2021 competition:

  • Competitors: 63 students in 31 student teams.
  • Mentors and advisors: 23, including nine CMU faculty or staff, most of whom have started businesses.
  • Prize money: $100,000, including $35,000 carried over from 2020.
  • History: The competition has been held nine times on campus and twice online.

Starting out in a pandemic

Before taking on outside work, Mundt and Ashman cut their teeth on a manufacturing project of their own: creating protective face shields in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. With a boost from crowdfunding, which Mundt studied in class, they donated 600 shields to front-line health care workers in mid-Michigan.

It was their first partnership after a long association: The two met in preschool and remained friends as they grew up in Mount Clemens and neighboring Clinton Township in metro Detroit.

They've each participated twice before in the New Venture Competition. Last year, Mundt pitched a noise amplifier he called Sound Cup for electronic devices, and Ashman, now a senior majoring in marketing with a professional sales concentration unveiled a clear acrylic container for use in micro fishing

Ashman said his business, Micro Outdoors, won the two-minute pitch competition in the 2020 New Venture awards. After gaining 4,000 followers on Instagram, he knew a market existed for his product but couldn't find a company to make it.

"Manufacturers weren't taking me seriously," he said. "It kind of stopped me in my boots."

Meanwhile, Mundt had secured a patent and 250 preorders for his Sound Cup and had won third place in the two-minute pitch competition. He couldn't find a small-scale manufacturer, either.

"I can do this."

Both original products are on hold, but what seemed like a loss has become a gain if their new idea succeeds. They intend to keep running and growing Form Further on the strength of their experience with the New Venture Competition at CMU.

"We've met tons of successful businessmen and businesswomen," said Ashman, who graduates in May. "We've received a lot of guidance from the entire competition."

They've also given back, mentoring other students and lending a hand with their projects. Ashman said they helped another student venture prototype a solar-powered backlit address sign.

Entrepreneurial spirit did not come naturally to Mundt, who completes his master's degree this summer, but he said he's learned something from the New Venture Competition this year: "It put into perspective that I can do this.

"I came to Central without a background in business, but knew I had an entrepreneurial spirit. Central and the New Venture Competition were able to take that and mold me into the entrepreneur I am today."

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