By PAUL SIMS
Jamien Sills remembers the first time he saw Michael Jordan play basketball. Jordan hit the game-winning shot to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1989.
“After that, I begged my Mom for a pair of Air Jordans,” Sills said of the shoes named after Jordan, adding his mother told him if he made straight As, he would get a pair and he did.
“It was like wearing a piece of artwork on my feet,” he said. At this point, he’d been drawing in general, then “started making up shoes out of my head.” He was 8 years of age.
On Thursday, Sills, a Mississippi State University master of business administration student, received $800 as the first-prize winner for the New Venture challenge for his shoe business, Neimaj, as part of MSU’s Creativity and Innovation Day.
Sills has worked in every facet of the shoe industry, including warehouse, retail, corporate and ownership.
He was transitioning from one company and ended up living in China, working in shoe manufacturing plants studying how shoes are made.
He recalls leaving with headaches and noticing a good bit of leftover waste material. So he started talking with the plant owners about how to cut out the waste and harmful chemicals involved.
“I was really concerned about not only the environment but also the health of the workers,” Sills said.
So Sills came up with what he described as a well-designed sneaker without using harmful chemicals or adhesives, but instead employs canvas and natural, untreated rubber.
“They are optimally-designed to drastically reduce the waste materials,” he said.
He stayed in China another two years, then went back to his hometown of Memphis, Tenn., where he got together with a business partner from a previous venture. He started Neimaj at the end of 2008.
The first line of “eco-friendly sneakers” is called Rootz. He’s also developing a safety shoe called “Evo” with a composite toe.
He says he came up with the name and company concept in his senior year in undergraduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.
“Jamian is unique type of student” in that he’s experienced in the shoe business, said Gerald Nelson, the director of the Thad Cochran Endowment for Entrepreneurship and the Jack Hatcher Engineering Entrepreneurship program. “He’s already got an advisory board and that’s going to be very helpful to him.”
Allison Pearson, W.L. Giles Distinguished Professor of Management, at MSU, spoke to the significance of Thursday’s awards.
“We get to honor and acknowledge the students’ involvement in entrepreneurship,” she said. “These students are the ones who will step in and take the initiative. I think we’ll see big things from them.”
Nelson said the more years organizers hold the competitions, the more business gets involved.
Angel Network investors now review start-up business plans for potential investment, he said.
As the competitions continue to grow, “we not only see quantity, we also see the quality increase,” Nelson said.
A focus in future years will be to build interest areas, Nelson said.
Six teams will go to the Mississippi Technology Alliance competition in May in Jackson, he said.
The entrepreneurial culture “is quickly becoming an integral part of the MSU landscape,” Nelson said.
More than 200 students were involved in the recent competitions.
Four entries were honored in the MSU Engineering Business Plan Competition, restricted to engineering students who had a project or business around which they built a business plan. This was funded by the Jack Hatcher Engineering Entrepreneurship Certification Program.
The winners were (dollar amounts listed are per team):
• First place; Magnolia Recycled Glass Co.; Ketan Patel and Sam Leggett; $1,000.
• Second place; Stag; Daniel Herrington; $500.
• Third place (tie); Bulldog EV; Josh Hoop and Tom Goddette; $300.
• Third place (tie) Armatic Global; Brendan Edwards; Toi Spates, Nathan Lingle and Erin Colebeck; $300.
The New Venture challenge was funded from the Thad Cochran Endowment for Entrepreneurship.
The winners were:
• First place: Neimaj; Jamien Sills; $800.
• Second place: Innometrix; Ali Boranzjani and Benjamin Weed; $400.
• Third place: The Five22; Myles Byrd; $200.
The Northrup Grumman e-Commerce Business Competition, funded by Northrup Grumman, is designed to encourage e-commerce business and the winning team uses the money to try to start the business over the summer.
Local e-commerce entrepreneur Mike Allen will mentor the winner.
The winners were:
• First place: Bellwether Games; Dennis Hoyle; $5,000.
• Second place: Yourfeed.com; Darrius Taylor, Wesley Cramblitt and Christian Hall; $500.
• Third place (tie): Tutor Soup; Heather Black and Amanda Butts; $250.
• Third place (tie): The Social Team; Evan Hugall, Allison Healy, Bradley Thompson and Tanner Stump; $250.
The MSU Innovator’s Challenge involves groups of students who develop an iPhone application and take it to market, selling it all around the world through the iTunes application store. They compete in downloads and sales dollars. The Cochran Endowment funds this competition.
In the downloads category, the winners were:
• First place: Single Player Simon Says; Matt Greenwell and Patrick Hernandez; $2,500.
• Second place: Stat It Up!; Hunter Whittle; $1,500.
• Third place: Park Hound; Matt Williams and John Reardon; $500.
In the sales dollars category, the winners were:
• First place: It Talks!; Evan Howlett, John Paul Rose and Ashkay Gupta; $2,500.
• Second place: PitchStat, Murphy Brantley; $1,500.
• Third place: I Got Ya Pro; Will Kalish; $500.
Also, the $1,000 Bulldog Choice Award for the most innovative application went to the Stat It Up! application.
Also, organizers honored the winners of a biomedical engineering competition held a few weeks back. It was funded by the Cochran Endowment.
The winners were:
• First place: Armatic, a maternal monitoring device; $600.
• Second place: Need to Breathe, a human-powered nebulizer, $400.
• Third place (tie): MATS Rehab, an ankle dynamometer; $200.
• Third place (tie): Kamm Biosoft, a low-cost, open-source software for HIV treatment enhancement; $200.