Building a future

by Sara Gordon–

Blacksburg, Va., April 24 — PIECING IT TOGETHER: Jimmy Atkinson, a senior at Virginia Tech in the Wood Enterprise Institute course, assembles the various pieces of his team’s product, a custom dog bowl holder. Photo: Sara Gordon

Since 2007, the two-semester Wood Enterprise Institute (W.E.I.) course at Virginia Tech has been providing students with a hands-on entrepreneurial experience to design, create, market, and sell a wooden product through their own business. According to the W.E.I. website, the course is organized as a 501(c)(3) student owned-business which operates in the Innovation & Design Laboratory and Classroom in the Brooks Forest Products Center at Virginia Tech.

The first semester of the course involves brainstorming ideas of a product to develop, conducting market research, and creating a business plan. During this time, students must present their product idea and have their business plan approved by the board, which includes students from the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials, many of whom have already taken the class.

Jimmy Atkinson, a member of the 2018-2019 W.E.I. course said market research was the most challenging aspect for his team. “I think that was one of the areas we fell short in, we did not do enough market research to see how many of these [custom dog bowl holders] we were going to sell,” said Atkinson. Currently, his team has sold 25 dog bowl holders out of their goal to sell 80.

Development, production, marketing, and sales are the main areas of focus during the second semester. The team must take their final design and begin marketing the product, followed by taking orders from customers to fulfill their production goal and shipping the final product out.

Dr. Earl Kline, Director of W.E.I., said some of the most unique products he’s seen are also those that have not had the most successful business. “The more complex a product is, the more costly it is, and to try to find a customer that is going to pay you back for that cost isn’t the easiest thing to do,” said Kline.

The College of Natural Resources and Environment reports that nearly 150 students have participated in the course since it came to fruition, generating over $47,000 in revenue, which goes directly back into the course to supply funding for future teams.