Every semester in IST 626 Business Information Resources and Strategic Intelligence students learn how to research companies and formulate plans to help executives understand their own company’s, and their competitors’ strengths and weaknesses. Typically, the organizations are publicly traded companies with recognizable names like IBM, GE, or Cisco.

This year, however, the graduate students enrolled in IST 626, taught by iSchool Prof. Jill Hurst-Wahl, selected emerging businesses that were included on AlwaysOn Global 250 Top Private Companies list and another from an Upstate Venture Connect list of new student-run businesses from Central New York.

The AlwaysOn list comprises 250 domestic and international companies selected from thousands of industry-nominated organizations that are demonstrating significant market traction and are pursuing pioneering technologies in on-demand computing, digital media, and green technologies. Upstate Venture Connect, an organization dedicated to supporting high-tech, high-growth companies in the region, shared a list of dozens of student startups in CNY that are less than five years old.

The iSchool students, in turn, selected one of the companies from each list to research throughout the semester and write an article profiling the company.

“I found working with AlwaysOn and Upstate Venture Connect different in the scope of the companies and the amount of information available,” said Maren Guse G’12, an information management (IM) student. “It was easier to find information about the AlwaysOn companies but more challenging to synthesize. The Venture Connect startups were newer and smaller, and there was less information in common spaces, such as databases, which challenged our search capabilities to reach beyond traditional information sources.”

For IM student and entrepreneur Kyle McShane G’12, that research led to personal interviews of the SU student founders of online gaming startup, SkillAddiction. “I was able to speak face-to-face with a successful startup entrepreneur, Ray Williams ’10 of SkillAddiction,” McShane said. “It was helpful to gain insight into how Ray and his partner Taylor Louie ’10 have evolved their idea into a successful startup.”

These interviews were not only helpful to McShane as he created the company profile for the course assignment, they also gave him insight on how to better manage his own startup, DreamFetcher.com, a company that matches people with employers.

IM student Ryan Mayer ’10, G’11 enrolled in the course hoping to learn how to use information resources to determine business strategies: he said he learned that and much more.

“I thought the assignment working with AlwaysOn companies (mine specifically was SolarCity) was a perfect way to use what we have learned in the class is a real-world environment,” Mayer said. “The Upstate Venture Connect project was also interesting, but different because the start-up company I was working with was in the very early stages of their organizational life cycle and I was able to meet with the representative face to face. From both experiences I learned how to research companies in ways I have never done before and use those techniques to determine a variety of business strategies and project the future of those organizations.”

Another important part of the course was sharing their work about the startups with AlwaysOn, Upstate Venture Connect, and even the startups themselves, Hurst-Wahl said. “When the students research a Fortune 500 company for a project, it kinds of feels fake because it’s not connect to the real world in the way I’d like it to be,” she said. “There’s so much public information available on those companies. It’s harder to gather information on private companies and the students need to find other sources of information. I also wanted the projects in this class to have some after-life, to make an impact.”

Students in the course are invited to submit their final papers to AlwaysOn, which has agreed to publish them on its web site, and with Upstate Venture Connect, which will use the information to help promote the startups through its network. The students’ research can also be used to help create profiles for Crunchbase, a free database of IT companies that anyone can edit.

“Having an assignment with a purpose that extended beyond the classroom inspired me to invest more into the final product and to view the project not as a homework assignment but as the creation of a potential portfolio piece,” Guse said. “Being able to submit our papers to the organizations for publication is a wonderful opportunity to join the information and technology community and expose our names to the fields we hope to enter after graduation.”