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ZIP Launchpad Entrepreneurs graduate with real-world startup skills | Information Center


From endorsement deals for student athletes to a water quality testing app, SDSU’s Startup Incubator offers guidance, tools and support for fledgling businesses.

In 2021, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA could no longer prohibit student athletes from seeking product endorsement deals.

“A lot of new businesses are created when there is a change in the law,” said Pug Pace, a management student at San Diego State University and a sports enthusiast. “As soon as I saw this law change, it hit me like a light bulb, like, wow, this is a great opportunity.”

His idea ? An app that connects student-athletes with companies to negotiate mutually beneficial sponsorship deals.

Setareh Sterling, also a management student, had a similar idea. With the help of SDSU’s Zahn Innovation Platform (ZIP), the two have partnered to create CASH – Competitive Athlete Sponsorship Hub – a digital platform that connects businesses with student athletes to endorse their products through social media.

“Right now, micro-influencers are a big deal,” Sterling said. “It’s something that didn’t exist two years ago, but now brands are really targeting these micro-influencers for a more authentic feel to promote their products.”

Pace and Sterling believe the app could benefit both small businesses with limited marketing budgets and student athletes, whose busy schedules make it difficult to fit into a part-time job.

ZIP Launchpad provided advice, tools and support to develop their idea and work towards launching their business.

“Participants begin by identifying an important problem that they are passionate about solving,” said Cathy Pucher, Executive Director of ZIP Launchpad. “Once accepted into the program, they work in a supportive and collaborative environment, moving step-by-step from problem to solution at startup.”

The Business Incubator is open to all SDSU students, faculty, and staff. Participants work with experienced mentors, legal advisors and subject matter experts who guide them through the start-up process. They have access to a 24/7 collaborative workspace as well as workshops and business events. Funding to develop their ideas is also available, and they can even hire interns.

ZIP Launchpad teams have created products ranging from skateboard lights to sustainable cookies and sanitary napkins.

The passion for coaching

Marie-Elisabeth Pacio, a kinesiology major, joined ZIP Launchpad last summer. She founded Court Vision Academy, a basketball coaching program in Chula Vista that prepares motivated young players to compete on club, travel or school teams.

Coach Mary-Elizabeth Pacio mentors young basketball players. (Photo by Isaiah Paguio)

“I really wanted to learn what it was like to own a business. I knew what it was like to be a coach, but as a business owner, I had no idea. said Pacio, who started playing basketball when he was 12.

Her ZIP Launchpad counselors helped her set goals and execute them. And they briefed her on business models, intellectual property, and insurance requirements.

“You really sit down and go over everything and make sure everything is in place,” Pacio said. “They supported me every step of the way. The amount of wisdom I’ve gained from ZIP Launchpad has been amazing.

Internships foster innovation

HG Fenton Company’s Ideas Lab is located adjacent to ZIP Launchpad’s headquarters on the first floor of the Interdisciplinary Engineering and Science (EIS) building. Here, participants design logos and websites for their businesses and create product mockups. But they can also outsource this work to graphic design and engineering interns who work in the lab. By helping to turn participants’ visions into reality, the trainees themselves gain valuable experience.

“They invent the product and then they use us as resources,” said the intern and graphic design major. Brian Leenerts. “It teaches me how to communicate with potential employers and potential clients.”

Intern and Major in Mechanical Engineering Max Greiner says trial and error features prominently in the process.

“You just have to start doing something to find out what you don’t know,” he said. “Learning to manage people’s expectations and what’s doable and what’s not is the most important skill the lab offers.”

“The interns here are in the best position of the whole bunch, working in all types of businesses and learning things outside of the classroom,” said Rene Arvizuresponsible for the rapid prototyping laboratory.

Drinking water for all

Hailey Valladao has been on both sides of the process, first as an intern and later as a ZIP Launchpad participant.

“I’ve gained a lot of experience working on product development, like setting goals and timelines to make sure we’re making progress, and working with teams of people from different disciplines.” she says.

Building on this experience, Valladao created two ZIP Launchpad teams. Currently, she and two interns are developing an app called Well that monitors household water quality.

“The heart of our technology is our community water dashboard. It basically gives you a score on the health of your water,” Valladao said.

The app pulls data from existing water quality databases, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, to estimate contamination levels. It also offers solutions.

“Our mission is really to help low-income communities and marginalized communities because they are the hardest hit by this contamination,” Valladao said. His team worked with Apple to create the app design with feedback from potential users. Then they tapped into the resources of the rapid prototyping lab to develop this design. They are currently testing and refining the app in a local community.

All of these ZIP Launchpad students and interns will be graduating this spring. Pacio’s basketball coaching business is thriving, and Pace and Sterling hope to get their CASH app into the hands of student-athletes in the not-too-distant future.

“Without ZIP, I don’t think we could have gotten this far,” Sterling said. “This is going to have a very lasting and significant impact on our lives.”

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