Student and Alumni Entrepreneurs
Ethan Doutney could be Indiana Jones’ doppelganger.
On a chilly autumn day, the 6-foot-2-inch Doutney wears a wide-brimmed hat with a neck flap and neoprene waders. Climbing over the side of his mud-lined, no-frills 24-foot Carolina Skiff, Doutney steps into the waist-high, nippy waters of Long Island’s Great South Bay.
He lifts one of the nearby cages onto his boat and checks the fruits of his labors — Blue Point oysters, their shells clean and shiny. Since purchasing the boat and equipment three years ago, the fourth-year Stony Brook University student has been cultivating oysters from seeds — the size of quinoa — into 3-inch delicacies.
While retaining the original corporate name, Dune Fishery, and the oysters’ brand name, Dune Harvest, Doutney, 29, has worked tirelessly to create a productive oyster-growing system. As a result, his firm generated $45,000 in revenue last year from sales mainly to wholesalers and a few restaurants, including the Blue Point Brewery in Patchogue.
“Farmed oysters are appealing because they don’t deplete the natural fisheries and are an environmentally sustainable practice,” said Doutney ’20, who worked for a coffee company in Mexico and as a male model in Los Angeles. That was before he started his higher education at Suffolk County Community College in 2015 and transferred to Stony Brook two years later to pursue a degree in business with a focus on finance. “At the same time,” he said, “the oysters I’m growing work to filter the waters of the bay.”
Doutney exemplifies the smart, resourceful and determined students that Stony Brook’s business courses and programs draw, who play no small role in contributing to the University’s prominence as a hub for turning entrepreneurial ideas into concrete realities.
These diverse students and alumni are not only bringing their world-class education to the entrepreneurial arena, but also their ingenuity, know-how and can-do outlook.
Following the playbook of Jon Oringer ’96, the founder of Shutterstock who started his first business creating and selling Web pop-up blockers as a Stony Brook student, fledgling entrepreneurs have kick-started their companies as undergraduates.
The University nurtures the entrepreneurial spirit in many ways. Its courses, programs, internships and mentorships provide invaluable support in launching, operating and expanding commercial ventures. And in an atmosphere that facilitates friendships and fosters collaboration — in residence halls, laboratories, libraries, cafeterias and classrooms — friends often become business partners.
“We want to encourage student entrepreneurship, helping them develop and take their idea to the next stage by giving them valid feedback,” said David Ecker, director of iCreate, a collaborative workspace within Stony Brook’s Division of Information Technology. iCreate provides a wide range of tools — from sewing and embroidery machines to 3D printers — to help students, individually or in groups, turn their ideas into products.
That mind-set is evident in Stony Brook’s highly popular, five-year-old Wolfie Tank competition, which iCreate runs.
Inspired by the TV show “Shark Tank,” Wolfie Tank enables students to showcase their talents by presenting their ideas to a panel of judges. Through the program, students receive expert feedback and recommendations for improving their business ideas, and the top seven advance to the finals.
With guidance from mentors, the finalists tweak, modify and ready their ideas for the culminating event, the Wolfie Tank awards. Presenting their sharpened business plans to the judges and the Stony Brook community, including donors to the University, they compete for the $1,000 grand and $500 second prize.
Doutney, who scored second place in the 2019 Wolfie Tank, said the contest didn’t just give him funds for additional oyster cages; he received valuable advice about leveraging his brand name to distinguish and grow his company.
“People should know what they are getting — perfect oysters — when they hear Dune Harvest,” said Doutney, who plans to promote it on social media and to popular restaurants.
Still, he takes well-deserved pride in what he has already accomplished.
“This year, I’ll sell 80,000 oysters while still in school,” he said.
A Passion Found in High School
In 2017, Edward Buckler ’21, a third-year SBU undergraduate, earned Wolfie Tank’s second place for Outland Analytics. Its product — a hardware device that provides real-time, wide-area, ground-level acoustical monitoring of motorized objects — targets forest managers, ranchers, farmers and others who seek to protect their properties from timber theft and other types of woodland vandalism.
Buckler began developing the product in high school with his friend Elliot Richards. The company’s co-founders met through their school’s robotics team.
“We had a capstone engineering class that required us to find a hole in the market and fill it,” said Buckler, now a multidisciplinary major in computer science, economics and philosophy.
With their shared passion for hiking in the great outdoors, Buckler and his fellow Ithaca, New York, native friend started interviewing forest managers about their challenges. As they discovered, there were many — everything from speeding all-terrain vehicles ripping up trails to people stealing trees from forests.
“People don’t know where and when [a problem] will occur, especially with one ranger covering an average of 500,000 acres,” said Buckler.
The two young men successfully completed their high school engineering class assignment and went further. They recently cut their first-ever leasing deal — with the Bureau of Land Management in Arizona.
“Our device doesn’t need the human touch. It listens with a microphone, with no input from people, and it gives rangers and private landowners the when and where of timber theft so they can respond and put an end to it,” said Buckler.
Along with securing $50,000 in seed funding from varied sources, including personal finances, the State of New York, Drexel University (where Richards is a student) and Wolfie Tank, Outland Analytics has received $52,000 in free credit to use IBM’s servers.
Stony Brook also has enabled Buckler to advance his goals.
Besides the University’s strength in computer science and its Wolfie award, which helped sharpen the pair’s pitch, Buckler said that Roy Shilkrot, a former assistant professor of computer science at Stony Brook, generously shared his expertise. Moreover, three of the company’s four employees are Stony Brook undergraduates; all work remotely, with one on leave from school.
And while a scholarship freed his personal savings to pursue his dream, Stony Brook’s reputation got his foot through the door, said Buckler. “People know and respect it.”
On-Campus Resources Provide Scaffolding
The renown that Stony Brook enjoys also can be linked to the many support services it offers student entrepreneurs. The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science trains entrepreneurs and scientists in how to best present their ideas to a general audience, including policymakers and funders, and the Stony Brook Small Business Development Center (SBDC) offers consulting services to entrepreneurs — helping Doutney write a contract for his farm’s purchases, for example. SBDC augments its professional advisors with interns from the College of Business.
Yash Jain ’18 and Ariel Rodriguez ’19 also received guidance from SBDC, including a customer referral, for their company Softwaylancing, which provides businesses with a platform for an online presence, web design, search engine optimization and social media marketing.
They said Stony Brook’s business and tech courses taught them what it takes to build a company, while their 2018 participation in Wolfie Tank, which requires contestants to take questions from judges, gave them experience in presenting their company.
“Those skills might be helpful in pitching venture capitalists,” said Jain, who earned his undergraduate degree in computer engineering. “You’ve got to be ready for any curveball questions they throw at you.”
Back in 2017, Jain started Softwaylancing with Filip Miljak, a Queens College student. When Miljak left the business for a consulting position, Rodriguez, a computer information systems major specializing in business, joined Softwaylancing as a partner.
Working together, Jain and Rodriguez gave their website a makeover to retain and attract clients, and by pounding the pavement and making cold calls, Rodriguez brought in 10 new accounts in his first year. Currently, the firm has 20 accounts, including a medical tube manufacturer, a local gym and an Indian fast-food restaurant with an e-commerce site.
For the foreseeable future, the partners will operate the business remotely.
Rodriquez is pursuing a position at a company in New York. And Jain, taking a hiatus from pursuing a Stony Brook master’s degree in computer engineering, currently works on color-changing fabrics that can save lives, as in combat, at Advanced Functional Fibers of America. The enterprise is operated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.
“The entrepreneur I am today is because I was lucky enough to meet the right people at the right time in my Stony Brook college dorm,” said Jain. “And as an engineer, I had the best engineering and science training in the country, and I’m now using those skills to protect Americans and for my business.”
Her Plan B Created Two New Companies
Courtesy of Stony Brook’s strong liberal arts program, which includes political science, Deepti Sharma ’08, found her calling: politics.
“I loved learning about government,” said Sharma, who had planned to go to law school to help underserved populations.
But when the financial crisis hit and unemployed lawyers abounded, Sharma pivoted to Plan B. Fortuitously, she had majored not only in political science but — taking her mother’s advice — also in business management.
Drawing inspiration from her Indian American parents, both entrepreneurs, Sharma initially sought to help food truck operators boost business by facilitating online sales to consumers. She then segued into creating her current business-to-business firm, which helps immigrant-, women- and minority-owned eateries and caterers connect to the corporate market. She launched FoodtoEat in 2011. The Manhattan-based, five-employee business markets these restaurants and catering businesses to corporations, assuming responsibility for creating corporate menu proposals, coordinating food deliveries and helping to execute catered affairs.
Warby Parker, the Skimm and Microsoft are among 200 corporations that FoodtoEat has connected to its network of eateries. In 2017, Sharma teamed with her husband to co-found Bikky, a multichannel customer-engagement data platform targeting chain restaurants.
Grateful that she pursued a business degree, which gave her “an arsenal” of knowledge to operate two companies, Sharma is equally appreciative of the hands-on business experience that Stony Brook afforded her. Working at the art gallery in Stony Brook’s Student Activities Center, she carried out many of the tasks involved in running a small business — an invaluable responsibility she said no one else would have given to a student.
Colleagues Found on Campus
English major Disi Fei ’08 has reaped the rewards of Stony Brook’s collaborative atmosphere and from the friendships she made in her sorority, Phi Sigma. Those undergraduate experiences have coalesced into providing the Beijing native with two business partners, Lenin Batista ’06 and Philip Sblendorio ’07, and a sorority sister, Sharma, who keeps Fei in the loop on networking events and other opportunities to promote the triumvirate’s business, SprezzaBox Inc.
Taking its name from sprezzatura, an Italian word meaning stylish but seemingly without effort, the five-year-old SprezzaBox is a Manhattan-based men’s fashion subscription service that sells accessories. It charges between $20 and $28 a month, depending on the contents of the stylist-curated box.
The company sells products from the likes of Perry Ellis and Nautica, as well as its own branded items, and has a partnership with Esquire magazine for a quarterly co-branded seasonal box of “what we think is trending,” said Fei, who, as chief creative officer, oversees everything from product curation and design to the website, video and creative photography. Sblendorio and Batista are CEO and COO/CTO, respectively.
Since its inception, SprezzaBox has shipped more than 1.5 million boxes, logging in with $13 million in sales last year.
Sblendorio’s Instagram fashion account inspired the trio’s entrepreneurship. Noting its growing popularity, they started selling items through the account, said Fei, who was a kindergarten teacher in New York’s Chinatown before joining SprezzaBox full time in 2015.
“If I didn’t meet Phil and Lenin at Stony Brook, this company wouldn’t exist,” she said.
Courses Provide the Right Navigation
A transfer student from LaGuardia Community College, Lance Bertrand ’13, a business management major with a concentration in accounting, had worked as a kitchen designer for IKEA throughout college. With his design know-how and confidence, coupled with Stony Brook business courses that he said gave him the knowledge and skills to navigate the entrepreneurial route, in 2016 Bertrand launched Turn Key Design & Construction Inc., a renovation company in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
In Turn Key’s first year, Bertrand designed two projects, naively unaware that any large revenue growth rested in also executing the buildout of those projects. Seeking to find his footing, he earned a real estate license, which resulted in leads for designing residential and commercial projects, and bringing them to life.
A self-described “networker like no other,” Bertrand promotes his business on social media, and at business expos and different events/groups like Business Network International.
Those efforts, combined with Turn Key’s nine-employee skilled team, commitment to quality customer service and a contract with IKEA to use its kitchen cabinets primarily, have sustained Turn Key’s annual 42 percent growth rate since 2016, Bertrand said. As a result, Turn Key’s 2018 revenues hit $500,000, with the company projecting $1 million in 2019.
As a City of New York-certified Minority-Owned Business Enterprise, Turn Key, Bertrand said, has the opportunity to bid on municipal projects, which will fuel greater growth.
Looking ahead, Bertrand also views property development as part of Turn Key’s evolution.
“I’m in this for the long haul,” he said. “Stony Brook had all the resources I needed, and it was on me to make it happen from there.”
Regardless of their business pursuits — whether in construction, technology, fashion or marketing — Stony Brook’s first-rate business courses, encouraging faculty and supportive initiatives have prepared alumni and current students well for the highly competitive entrepreneurial arena. And now, with their world-class educational training, they are confidently and creatively taking their companies to the next level.
Pursuing the Big Ideas
Cara S. Trager is a freelance writer whose byline has appeared in Newsday, Crain’s New York Business and The New York Times.