A photo of 19 black and yellow 3D printed trophies.

VCU students and alums deliver the entrepreneurial pitch at Demo Day

At Demo Day, entrepreneurs pitch their product and service ideas to six judges, who evaluate the concepts and the creators’ presentations for business viability and clarity and then select winners. (Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)
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From a car sun visor to a language translation system – and with healthy pet treats in between – the eighth annual Demo Day at the da Vinci Center for Innovation on April 19 showcased the impressive breadth of student and alumni entrepreneurship at Virginia Commonwealth University.

As seen on TV’s “Shark Tank” program, Demo Day is framed around entrepreneurs pitching their product and service ideas – in this case, to six VCU and business experts, including from event sponsor Capital One. The judges evaluate the concepts and the creators’ presentations for business viability and clarity, with winners in each of four categories getting bragging rights and potential support from the da Vinci Center’s student venture fund.

Jerica Simmons, who is pursuing a master’s degree in product innovation at the center, won over the judges – and the crowd at the center’s Shift Retail Lab – in the Ideas category, which featured one-minute pitches about an idea that was not an active venture.

Offering what she calls “fresh retwist confidence" for the at-home loctician and DIY dreadlock stylist, Simmons outlined her Cultivated Coil Loc Detox Tool, which targets annoyances such as lint, debris and product build-up while maintaining the structural integrity of hair. She is now in the paper prototype phase of the tool, and she said Demo Day was an ideal platform for bringing the classroom to life.

“What brought me to the stage is implementing what we learn in the program, which is finding a problem that you have a connection to, one that doesn’t just affect me but affects my family and my friends,” Simmons said. “There are about five or six people in our program that have locs in. All of our locs look different, but we have that central problem that connects us.”

A photo of a woma from the chest up standing. She is holding one hand up with three fingers pointed in the air. She is standing behind a podium with a microphone
Jerica Simmons, who is pursuing a master’s degree in product innovation at VCU, won the Ideas category of Demo Day. (Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Simmons noted that her classes allowed her to practice her pitch and get feedback from professors and mentors who visit Shift Retail Lab. They challenge students’ ideas – in her case, asking why a customer would buy the loc tool as opposed to tweezers or other implements. Simmons said winning her category indicated that she and her concept could connect with people outside the dreadlock community.

In the Academic category, which featured three-minute pitches about a class project that was not an active venture, the winner was Luke Florio, also a master’s student in product innovation. His project, Creative Correspondence, is a custom postcard kit that offers an updated take on a traditional communication form.

The Alumni category, which also allowed three-minute pitches, was won by Linn Odegard, who earned her product innovation master’s degree from the da Vinci Center. Her product line, Norveda, features personal care items based on natural products in Norway and North America.

One participant in the Featured category also had skin in the game for Demo Day. Malique Middleton pitched Gewd Botanicals, an all-natural skin care brand that embraces his academic and creative paths. He has a degree in biology and entrepreneurship, and he works with community gardens around Richmond, including urban agriculture projects tied to the Virginia Department of Health and the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

A group photo of 18 people.
The presenters at this year’s Demo Day. (Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Middleton, who also is working toward a master’s in product innovation at the da Vinci Center, said weeks of practice went into preparing for Friday’s presentation.

“I had a lot of nerves, so I learned some breathing techniques so I could make sure I was able to calm myself back down. But now I have the confidence to finally believe in the fact that I know my company, I know what I’m talking about – and most importantly, I’m here to share the good stuff that I’m doing with the community,” Middleton said as he displayed his products at the post-pitch reception. He added that Demo Day helped him connect with his first investor as he seeks production and research space.

At the reception, the winners of the Featured category were raising glasses to their prospects. Celeste Chance and Catherine Emblidge, who study copywriting and strategy, respectively, at the VCU Brandcenter, were pouring samples of their nonalcoholic “shocktails” from their Everything But the Booze line of beverages, which they hope to bring to market soon.

At last year’s Demo Day, the two pitched an EBTB prototype, but the drinks weren’t shelf-stable beyond two weeks because of the all-natural ingredients. In the past year, Chance and Emblidge worked with Garden Grove Brewing to extend the shelf life to 90 days and get the product into cans, and they also updated EBTB’s branding.

They said winning at this year’s Demo Day offered validation for their persistence.

“We cannot say how thankful we are for the Shift Retail Lab,” Emblidge said. “They have been so helpful with us throughout this entire process, setting us up with different people in the network and getting pitch practice.”

A photo of a man from the wasit up stading behind a podium. He is speaking and gesturing his hands, with his palms facing upwards.
Garret Westlake, Ph.D., associate vice provost for innovation and executive director of the da Vinci Center, said it is rewarding to see the intersection of academic classroom projects and those that become successful companies. (Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Garret Westlake, Ph.D., VCU associate vice provost for innovation and executive director of the da Vinci Center, said that with each passing year, Demo Day engages more members of the VCU community, including through the center’s programs. Prior to Demo Day, students can go through Shift Retail Lab’s Shelfies program – a roughly monthlong showcase and test of their products – and the lab’s pre-accelerator program is a boot camp of sorts to help them prepare their pitches and business prospects.

“What stands out to me this year is how successful our alumni are after graduating from VCU and engaging in things like the pre-accelerator program,” Westlake said. “The ability to bring back alumni as part of Demo Day now as a regular function is particularly rewarding, as well as to see the intersection of both academic projects that are taking place in our classrooms as well as those that go on to become successful companies.”

Lloyd Young, director of innovation and design at the da Vinci Center, said Demo Day is a highlight not just for participants but for staff, who see how students and alumni have nurtured their ideas and entrepreneurial skills.

“I’m always so impressed with the dedication and the commitment to working on the pitch,” Young said. “I’m just proud of their confidence and ability to communicate to an intimidating audience.”