(Left to right) Pranav Neyveli and Miguel Rao standing with one arm around each other under a sign that says \"Demo Day April 29th.\"
Student entrepreneurs Pranav Neyveli and Miguel Rao. (Cat McCarthy, Cat McCarthy Creative)

Students pitch promising business ideas to investors at VCU Demo Day

Annual event is part of larger emphasis on experiential learning at VCU.

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Virginia Commonwealth University student Yosef Mirakov Cohen, a senior marketing major in the School of Business, is passionate about saving animals and protecting the environment. He founded a company, C'est Lä Vé, which makes vegan snack boxes in sustainable packaging. Last week, he pitched his idea to investors and members of the Richmond business community, hoping to get $5,000 in funding.  

“We often take life for granted,” Cohen said during his pitch. “Each year over 72 billion animals are being slaughtered for food, and over 380 million pounds of plastic is produced. That is where C'est Lä Vé comes in.”

The presentation was part of Demo Day, the da Vinci Center for Innovation’s annual gathering when student entrepreneurs present their ideas. C'est Lä Vé was one of six featured teams selected to make a presentation on stage as part of the event.

“It was such an amazing experience,” Cohen said after his pitch. “I was really nervous during the pitch. But I think the pitch went really well. After the pitch, I talked to a couple of mentors, and they gave me some great feedback. They gave me some great things to think about. I also got potential partners.”

A reception was held after the presentations at the Shift Retail Lab, a multifunctional retail space where VCU student innovators and entrepreneurs can showcase their work to gain insights and test their products, services and ideas with real-world customers. Shift Retail Lab this week was selected by Fast Company as an honorable mention in the Urban Design category as part of its 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards.

At the reception, visitors explored more than 40 additional projects and presentations from student founders. Of these, the People’s Choice Award was awarded to Bella Lubinskas, Brenna Gill and Hayden Taylor, advertising students in the Richard T. Robinson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences, for Better2gether, a 501c3 nonprofit organization that provides nonmedical assistance to families with children who have complex medical illnesses.

Aaliyah Cutlip standing in front of a presentation about her work
Aaliyah Cutlip, a student entrepreneur, at Demo Day. (Cat McCarthy, Cat McCarthy Creative)

At the event, VCU Provost Fotis Sotiropoulos, Ph.D., said Demo Day and the da Vinci Center align with the university’s emphasis on providing students with real-world experiences and access to trans-discipline learning that focus on outcomes.

“The da Vinci model looks like the classroom of the future,” Sotiropoulos said. “I want to use this model to scale it up throughout the entire university. We want to make the entire VCU look like the university of the future.”

The goal is to provide the students with the skills they need to be successful in a more technology-reliant future, Sotiropoulos said. Students need to develop critical thinking skills and other higher levels of learning to be competitive in the job market. They must work with people in other disciplines to solve problems and complete tasks, he said.

Cohen built the foundation of his company as a student, gaining valuable experience. He has rented professional kitchen space and processes orders through his website. He had to figure out logistics and made the Shift Retail Lab a pickup point for the food. He wants to start selling the products in local breweries and gift stores soon and hopes to enter national grocery stores later this year.

“I’m starting small,” Cohen said.GCOM Software CEO Kamal Bherwani was the keynote speaker at Demo Day. Bherwani is a successful venture capitalist and entrepreneur and visited VCU with First Lady Jill Biden last year. He was impressed with the da Vince Center and the experiential learning initiative at VCU.

“I looked around and I said to myself ‘VCU stands for Virginia Commonwealth University, but I really think it should stand for Venture Capital University,’” Bherwani said.

Bherwani said he dropped out of college during his third semester because he didn’t find it practical.

“If I had I been here, I would not have dropped out of college, because everything you are doing is relevant,” Bherwani said. “Classrooms like this are colleges of the future.”

Peyton Spangler, a graduate student in the Brandcenter, was among others to pitch her product at the event — Noodlers, a children’s construction toy designed out of pool noodles. Her goal was to raise $10,000 to patent the product and start a fundraising campaign through Kickstarter.

Two men talking to each other in a room full of people. In the foreground is a hand holding a cup, blurry flowers, and a woman walking by. Behind the two men more people sand around talking.
Brent Fagg, senior licensing associate, VCU Innovation Gateway, and William Benton, faculty, VCU da Vinci Center, at the Demo Day reception. (Cat McCarthy, Cat McCarthy Creative)

Spangler is a product designer and developed the Noodlers while an undergrad. She has no interest in running a company but wants to develop the product and sell the rights. Spangler said the support from the da Vinci Center and the Shift Retail Lab has been a boost to her project.

“There is an opportunity to get funding and talk to more people about the idea,” Spangler said.  “After the event, a number of people came up to me and gave me their cards. They encouraged me to reach out to them.”

Spangler and Cohen both said Garret Westlake, Ph.D., da Vinci Center executive director, did an excellent job of preparing them for the pitch. Cohen participated in the da Vinci Center’s two-week Pre-Accelerator Program prior to Demo Day, and Spangler did practice pitches with people at the center.

“The da Vinci Center really gives you all of the tools and all of the things you need to start a business,” Cohen said.