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Seven innovative student-led startups receive $5,000, will take part in VCU’s Pre-Accelerator Program

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VCU student entrepreneurs picked to take part in the spring class of VCU’s Pre-Accelerator Program gathered Friday at Founders Corner, a coworking space for entrepreneurs in University Student Commons.
Photos by Pat Kane, University Public Affairs.

Seven promising business ideas launched by Virginia Commonwealth University students, including a subscription crate service for college students, an online sneaker marketplace and an app for dog owners, will receive grants of $5,000 and will take part in VCU’s Pre-Accelerator Program in the spring semester.

The students’ startups were selected from 152 applications through a rigorous process in which 34 finalists had five minutes to pitch their ideas to a panel of officials from VCU entrepreneurship programs, the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park and Richmond accelerator program Lighthouse Labs.

By being selected, each team will receive a $5,000 stipend from VCU’s Quest for Innovation Fund, which supports the entrepreneurial endeavors of VCU students. As participants in the Pre-Accelerator Program, the students will take part in a three-month experience focused on guiding them through the challenging early stages of building a startup.

This year’s applicant pool was the most competitive since the program launched, with applicants coming from both campuses and ranging from freshmen to professional students.

I’m just blown away by what these students bring to the table.

“This is our fourth cohort for VCU’s Pre-Accelerator Program and, with triple the number of applicants, it was by far the most competitive,” said Nicky Monk, director of VCU Innovation Economy. “With each cohort we bring the top applicants in for a ‘Shark Tank’ style interview. This year, the interviews took us two days — every time, I find it to be such an impressive display of student innovation, intelligence and determination. I’m just blown away by what these students bring to the table. RVA’s future is bright.” 

The Pre-Accelerator Program’s first three cohorts included 22 teams that have collectively raised $1.5 million in revenue, investments and grants, and created 31 full- and part-time jobs.

This year’s cohort includes:

  • My Campus Crate
    Logan Deyo, a sophomore majoring in business management in the School of Business, is the founder of My Campus Crate, a fully customizable care and supply package experience for college students. The company bridges the gap between student wants and parent purchases to alleviate the homesickness of, and provide needed supplies to, students who are away at school.

  • Home Exercise Solutions
    Steven Ebeling and Cassandra Ford, doctoral students studying physical therapy in the School of Allied Health Professions, are developing an app called TheraJournal that will allow physical therapists to capture video of the patient performing prescribed exercises and then format them to include instructions before uploading to an online portal. The online portal will allow patients access to their prescription, record adherence and tracking of symptom progression.

  • Sole Hunter
    Sole Hunter, created by Bryce Johnson, a senior in the Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, will be an online sneaker marketplace. Sneaker reselling is a huge market, but current outlets for commerce do not provide an authentication method for sellers and buyers prior to purchase. Sole Hunter is creating an online platform to house sneaker sales with a flat shipping fee, and also accommodates an authentication step by having the shoes bypass Sole Hunter employees before the buyer is charged.

  • App for dog owners
    Britain Kern, a graduating senior majoring in marketing, product and brand management in the School of Business, is developing an app that will be a collection of tools and resources to help dog owners. It addresses common pain points, such as time management and breed education, as well as promotes individualized toys and other products. The goal of the company is to empower dog owners with more effective solutions.

  • Interactive
    Rahul Sundararaman, a sophomore computer science major in the School of Engineering, is creating a targeted advertising product that interfaces with a camera, display and speakers. The camera will be used to take a photograph of a passerby, and an algorithm will analyze the photograph to determine the individual’s age, gender and ethnicity. With that information, the display and speakers show a targeted advertisement for the individual walking by.

  • FlightRVA
    Matt Teachey, who is pursuing a master’s degree in product innovation from the da Vinci Center, has launched an e-commerce platform and shipping service that takes fresh, craft beer directly from the brewery to consumer. This allows the breweries to bypass distributors and sell directly to the consumer, allowing the breweries to maintain the margins they enjoy when consumers purchase from them directly.

  • Co-working space for contractors, craftsmen
    Taylor Trenz, a junior majoring in entrepreneurship in the School of Business, is looking to open a co-working space for “makers.” The target customers would be creatives, contractors and craftsmen who do not have available space to work from. They would provide the location and tools for these craftsmen, and also allow them to network with each other. The company would collect money through fees paid at member rates on a monthly basis or non-member rates per diem.

“The newest VCU Pre-Accelerator cohort benefits from a threefold increase in applications and increasingly difficult decisions for the judges,” said Garret Westlake, Ph.D., executive director of the da Vinci Center, a collaboration between VCU’s Schools of the Arts, Business and Engineering and the College of Humanities and Sciences that advances innovation and entrepreneurship. “The diversity of ventures in the program represents the cross-disciplinary nature of innovation at VCU. Another exciting aspect of this year’s cohort is that the students range from first-year freshmen to master’s and Ph.D. students.”

Venture Creation University

Venture Creation University is VCU's strategy for ensuring all students are exposed to innovation and entrepreneurship and have access to entrepreneurial pathways. To find out more about this effort, and to learn about innovation and entrepreneurial programs offered at VCU, visit entrepreneurship.vcu.edu.

Todd Nuckols of Lighthouse Labs said the Pre-Accelerator Program and the companies emerging from it are playing an important role in Richmond’s entrepreneurship scene.

“The Pre-Accelerator Program is critical to the continued sharpening of VCU and the communities focus on developing our startup ecosystem,” he said. “It provides a safe environment for students to pursue dreams and consider the elements necessary to succeed in startup life. Having managed the first summer program for VCU and participating as a mentor in prior programs you can tell the talent, ideas and opportunity continues to mature and expand with each cohort and the latest is no exception.”

The Pre-Accelerator Program is part of Venture Creation University, VCU’s strategy for ensuring that all students are exposed to innovation and entrepreneurship and have access to various entrepreneurial pathways.

A 2014 survey of VCU’s student body found recently that 51 percent of VCU students were interested in starting their own company. It also found that 14 percent of students had an idea for a startup or had already launched their own company.

“VCU has such a strong entrepreneurial student body, and through the Venture Creation University effort, we are committed to providing each and every student with access to programs that support these activities,” Monk said. “From student clubs and weekly pitch competitions, to educational programs like our Venture Creation Certificate, to our Pre-Accelerator — and even a living-learning community dedicated to innovation and entrepreneurship — you can't turn the corner without getting a sense of VCU’s entrepreneurial culture.”  

Venture Creation University, she added, is notable because it involves programs and initiatives across the entire university’s campuses, schools and departments.

“We do not focus our efforts within one school, nor are we interested in building 13 different centers for entrepreneurship across VCU’s various schools and colleges,” Monk said. “At VCU we’re focused on breaking down silos and building smart. By leveraging the da Vinci Center as our interdisciplinary hub, students from across the university have access to core pathway programs. This centralized approach increases interdisciplinary interaction and allows VCU to use resources effectively.”

About VCU and VCU Health

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 225 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Seventy-nine of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 13 schools and one college. The VCU Health brand represents the health sciences schools of VCU, the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the VCU Health System, which comprises VCU Medical Center (the only academic medical center and Level I trauma center in the region), Community Memorial Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, MCV Physicians and Virginia Premier Health Plan. For more, please visit www.vcu.edu and vcuhealth.org.