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How's this for an eclectic mix of entrepreneurs?

An emu farmer from Alabama paid a visit to a strange-looking RV this summer as the vehicle embarked on a 9,000-mile journey in search of entrepreneurs.

Then there was the Vermont man who turned his garage into a blacksmith shop where he makes decorative metal creations.

A mountain biking enthusiast from Pennsylvania talked-up his quest to design a new type of bike, while a husband-and-wife business duo from Kalamazoo, Mich., outlined their plans to develop a chain of restaurant/brew pubs.

Closer to home, four aspiring local entrepreneurs -- all MBA students at the University at Buffalo School of Management -- were outside the van several days ago as it visited UB's North Campus in Amherst. There was something about the RV's name that they liked -- "Be the Boss" was emblazoned on the sides of the vehicle.

Sharon J. Husarek, Kristen L. Maher, Larry Miller and Nikhil Shah are hoping to be touched by an "angel." They're applying for an "Angel Grant" through The Institute for Entrepreneurship, hoping to secure $5,000 in seed money for an Internet-best venture that would let supermarket chains offer shoppers complete lines of products and services in cyber space.

"We're building an infrastructure that's totally different from and the other Internet-based shopping services that are already out there," said Miller. "It's going to be a very consumer-focused model that would let people manage their entire grocery shopping purchases."

These are just the kind visions that put smiles on faces of staffers at the Institute for Entrepreneurship. The Albany-based not-for-profit corporation was founded two years ago with the goal of fostering an environment that allows entrepreneurs to thrive. The institute is affiliated with the State University of New York at Empire State College and uses numerous tools, including educational partnerships, free mentoring, scholarships and grants.

Back in June, staffers embarked on a 45-day trek across the northeast and parts of the Midwest, visiting more than two dozen cities in 11 states. Their itinerary included large cities such as Pittsburgh, Boston and New Orleans. But the "Be the Boss" van also searched for entrepreneurs in sleepy towns in West Virginia, Alabama and other states.

Jill S. Hommel, associate program coordinator, said the "E-Tour" set up shop in some interesting places.

"We got clearance from the mayor of Atlantic City to go right on the boardwalk," she said. "We visited college campuses, summer camps and shopping centers. We must have talked to a couple thousand people. Some would even approach us when we were filling up at gas stations."

Statistics back up the notion that entrepreneurism is alive and well. A study conducted in the late 1990s by the Entrepreneurial Research Consortium found that more than 35 million households -- about one in three -- had direct involvement in a new or small business.

The vast majority of people that institute staffers talked with on the recent tour were under 30 years of age. The four UB graduate students who are seeking the grant are all between the ages of 23 and 27 and share an interest in e-business and management information systems.

The group is also competing in the Panasci Entrepreneurial Awards, hoping to snare the $25,000 first prize. The competition was created last year to encourage UB students to develop new ideas and ventures. The program is funded by a $1 million donation made by UB alumnus Henry A. Panasci Jr.

Shah, who is overseeing finances for the Internet start-up, said that the project will need a six-figure investment. He said winning the grants would do more than provide seed money.

"If we win these competitions, it will give us a lot of credibility as we continue to approach other interested parties."

A heavy-hitter in the local business community is serving as the students' mentor. Jordan Levy is a local technology entrepreneur who co-founded Upgrade Corp. of America, a company that later become Softbank Services and is now ClientLogic.

Levy learned about the students' venture from Shah, who served as an intern at Seed Capital Partners, a Buffalo venture fund that Levy created.

"Their concept is outstanding," said Levy. "You need to have a solid niche and good technology. There's a lot of competition out there, but they could conceivably have a strong business."

But Levy added that raising venture capital for a start-up is no easy task and that the students will have to continue fine-tuning their business plan and meeting with prospective investors. Miller was in Boston, Mass., this past weekend pitching the concept to an interested party.

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