From Inside Business
Newport News-based Ferguson is jumping on the entrepreneurial bandwagon to shape industry innovation and tapped William & Mary students for potential startup solutions.
“It’s our intent to really help our customers become more productive,” Ferguson Chief Marketing Officer Mike Brooks said.
The largest U.S. distributor of plumbing supplies had more than $16 billion in sales last year and roughly 27,000 workers across the country. Brooks said the company realized it could use its stature to mold change in its industry.
Ferguson Ventures was launched last year to invest in and partner with companies, including early-stage businesses, that solve industry challenges or problems for Ferguson’s customer base.
But Ferguson doesn’t have to look far for ideas in which to invest.
Longtime employee Bob Canfield, director of branch development, had a pitch for Ferguson executives. He said the company should leverage its relationship with the College of William & Mary — and its business school and entrepreneurship center — to find and develop innovative ideas.
That led to students participating in a 10-week program culminating in the first Ferguson-William & Mary innovation challenge pitch day at the company’s headquarters April 19 that awarded $5,000 total to two winning ideas. All the concepts can undergo further development or prototyping in Ferguson’s Innovation Lab this summer, Brooks said. Four internships were opened for participants as well, he said.
Five teams of students were each matched with a Ferguson mentor and charged with providing a solution to address productivity in the construction industry, given its labor shortages.
The winning concept by team Contech built upon already tested solutions in the retail and storage sectors — a smart locker so contractors or plumbers wouldn’t have to wait in line or arrive during certain business hours to get the parts they need for a job, said Jonna Reinhardt, a master’s of business administration student who’s also in the Army.
Much like an Amazon locker, contractors would order what they need online, receive a text when their orders are ready and pick them up when it best fits their schedule. The locker could provide both a pickup and a mobile storage solution if placed at ongoing work sites.
Other Contech team members included Naoya Maruyama, Isabel Cadillo, John Maxwell and Skylar Barrera. Their mentor, Stephanie Ziegler of Ferguson Ventures, won top mentor. The team won $3,500.
“I can tell you that these pitches were every bit as good as the small startup community across the globe,” Ferguson CEO Kevin Murphy told attendees.
The second-place team, TBT, won $1,500 for its app that would help plumbers diagnose a homeowner’s or contractor’s problem remotely so the plumber could order and pick up needed parts before arriving at the site. The teammates were Li Zhao, Michael Briggs, Bingling Wang, Alan Song and Wayne Wu.
Graham Henshaw, executive director of the college’s Alan B. Miller Entrepreneurship Center, enjoyed showing his students can provide the same type of pitches as those given in Silicon Valley. Additionally, students got more than a resume-building experience, he said. They learned from a business mentor and created potential job opportunities.
“They’re all walking away with fantastic real-world experience,” Henshaw said.
Players in Hampton Roads’ entrepreneurial ecosystem watched those pitches, too.
Christopher Shelton, executive director of StartWheel, a nonprofit focused on bridging connections between entrepreneurs, mentors, investors and others with one centralized website and directory, said he would love to see more corporate engagement in the local startup scene.
Evans McMillion, executive director of 757 Accelerate, came as a supporter and to let people know the application process for the next cohort of the regional business acceleration program opens May 1.
“More of this would be great,” McMillion said.
From Inside Business
By Tara Bozick
Have a story in mind or press release of your own that our regional entrepreneurs and innovators should know about? Let us know!
Stay updated on news and events in the Hampton Roads startup ecosystem…sign up for the StartWheel newsletter!
StartWheel’s mission is to centralize and mobilize efforts that foster the growth of entrepreneurism in our regional innovation economy. We aim to support and cultivate an entrepreneurial network in HRVA where talent, resources, information and leadership come together.