Students2Startups – An Interview with Peter Webley

July 12, 2021

Coupi Interns
In 2019, four students interned with Coupi, a UAF spinout company. Photo by Amanda Byrd.

OIPC’s Amanda Byrd sat down with Peter Webley recently to discuss the Students2Startups program.

 Amanda Byrd: Hi Peter, thanks for chatting today! Please give me a little background on Students2Startups? 

Peter Webley: Sure! Students2Startups is a summer-based experiential learning program starting in the middle of May going through to early August. We are partnering students within the University of Alaska system with startup businesses looking for an intern who can come in and work on different projects.

AB: How do the students meet the startup companies?

PW: The program starts with a mixer event, where we bring in interested students and startups and they get to mingle. All the startup companies are looking for someone to work with them for the summer. The students and the startups then work out the type of project they want to develop during that timeframe and we see how these proposals line up with the aims and mission of the program.

AB: How many students have gone through the program?

PW: This year is the third cohort of students. It's averaged out at 10 students a year and the male to female ratio is an even 15-15 split. This year we have nine students who are a mixture from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and University of Alaska Anchorage.

The first year was in person but 2020 was completely virtual so there was a real impetus to try and integrate students with startups. This year has adapted as the summer has progressed.

AB: How do you get the word out to startups that there are talented and interested interns available?

PW: Good question! S2S is a program at the Center for Innovation, Commercialization, and Entrepreneurship (Center ICE), an innovation hub based at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. We use its network and outreach channels to reach out to students and companies across Alaska. Those students funded by the Center ICE Seed Fund are connected to upcoming opportunities. Several of this year’s students applied at the UAF Careers Fair; I connected with several applicants there.

AB: What do the students bring to this internship? 

PW: This year students with an engineering background and some in computer science came into the program. They bring their own skillsets and their own ideas that might be something new the startup hasn't been looking at. They can work on a wide range of projects with the startups. Some students end up working on marketing campaigns; one of the startups needed to develop a promotional video, so the two students working with them helped on designing that. Others have focused on engineering design as the company has this as a need and their projects aligned with the students’ interests.

AB: Who are the startup companies this year?

PW: This year we have six startup companies. The Launch Company and Karta Solutions are based out of Anchorage. The CEOs of these companies — Ben Kellie and Jay Byam — are UAF graduates. We also have a startup company that's licensing technology from UAF and is also connected to the University of Washington, Aquagga. They are going through the technology development track with Launch Alaska right now. We also have Palett9 who are run by two UAA students. Finally, we have Remora and Elevated Oats based out of Anchorage.

AB: So, how does Center ICE fit into the internship?

PW: We bring the students and startups together during a mixer event. Each startup pitches their business and needs to the students. The students decide who they would like to work with and they follow up with the startups for an interview. The student then works with their connected startup to present a written proposal to Center ICE for their internship project. This is completed by both and the student and startup and then it is sent to Center ICE for review. This can be a unique opportunity for the students as they gain experience working with a startup while also learning about and getting connected to the wider Alaskan innovators and entrepreneurial community.

AB: In the past two years have there been any standout success stories, where a student who has worked with the startup really contributed? 

PW: One example is 907 Financial where Solomon Himelbloom and Sarah Walker worked last year. The lead for this company has gone through the Upstart Alpha accelerator provided by the UAA Center for Economic Development. Sarah Walker has continued to work with 907 Financial over the academic year. The work that she did in the summer led to great connections with that startup. Also, Solomon Himelbloom became a Center ICE student employee because of the experience, so I think that was a really great connection for him.

AB: Why should we care about linking students to startups? 

PW: Startups and small businesses are a large part of growing an economy, whether it's Fairbanks, Anchorage or Alaska in general. They bring in a lot of new capital, opportunities and jobs. It's about really giving them the capacity to scale up or grow.

An internship like this is giving students an experiential learning experience. It's an authentic sample of what it's like to work outside the university environment. What does it take, what are the ways that you need to think about how projects develop? They see how you work on a project where you hand off the results to another person or group and they continue to work on it based on your recommendations, and you don't get to go all the way through to the end. And, they experience what it is like not just to be all one type of specialists working on a project. They could be in a team with a marketing expert, an engineer, a geoscientist and/or a social scientist, all working together. You're building skills, and not just in your academic discipline. The students are growing and becoming more resilient. S2S supports these companies to grow, so they can become the next generation of employers that encourage economic growth in Alaska.

AB: Why should the University of Alaska focus on innovation?

PW: As academics, we are innovative because that's sort of how our minds work. Education innovation can have a direct impact today for Alaska — whether it's in Fairbanks itself, the Interior, the state, or across the Arctic. The university can provide benefits that support the wider community and help to build a future together.

AB: UAF has had a few standout startups, one especially quite recently.

PW: That's right — Aquagga is a great story. They've had very significant growth in the last 12 months or so. They are a company that developed from UAF research. They've been able to win competitions, get recognized nationally and bring in Small Business Innovation Research projects through the U.S. Environmental Protection Authority. They are also one of the S2S companies this year that has recruited an intern.

AB: What advice would you give a startup looking for an intern?

PW: If they're looking for an intern or some form of student-based connection — reach out to Center ICE and we'll have a conversation. We can help.

AB: What is your advice for students who are looking for an internship who might not even know what a startup is?

PW: I suggest they either talk to us or look at our website for the program that lists our current students. They should reach out to students who are already in the program to get solid information from a student’s perspective.

AB: What else should people know about Students2Startups or Center ICE?

PW: Students2Startups is within UAF Center ICE. Center ICE is funded in part by a grant from the Office of Naval Research, #N00014-18-1-2725.