Master of Product Innovation students in VCU's da Vinci Center took part in the prestigious European Innovation Academy over the summer.
<br>Courtesy photo

At entrepreneurship academy in Italy, VCU students’ innovative startups rank among the top 10

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Students in the VCU da Vinci Center’s Master of Product Innovation program traveled to Italy over the summer to participate in the European Innovation Academy, a program that draws 600 entrepreneurial students from 70 different countries to work in teams that develop promising startup concepts, develop a business and build a prototype — all in three weeks.

Two of the teams that included VCU students — one focused on virtual reality advertising and another developing a quick method to test seafood for toxic metals — were ranked among the top 10 of all participants.

“The da Vinci Center students who attended built new technology companies, in a foreign country, with teammates of different academic and cultural backgrounds, and achieved unparalleled success in three weeks,” said Garret Westlake, Ph.D., executive director of the da Vinci Center, a collaboration of VCU’s schools of the Arts, Business, Engineering, and College of Humanities and Sciences that advances innovation and entrepreneurship through cross-disciplinary collaboration.

“There is not a classroom where you can launch a company, engage with 100 mentors and 600 peers of 70 different nationalities and have it culminate in real-world pitches to venture capitalists,” Westlake said. “That is what VCU students got out of their experience with EIA. Because our students have EIA as a foundation, they are infinitely more prepared for the complexities and challenges of innovation.”


Virtual reality advertising

Matthew Halpern, a Master of Product Innovation student in VCU's da Vinci Center, displays his team's prototype virtual reality advertising prototype, which allows virtual reality users to customize a car.
<br>Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs
Matthew Halpern, a Master of Product Innovation student in VCU's da Vinci Center, displays his team's prototype virtual reality advertising prototype, which allows virtual reality users to customize a car.
Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

Matthew Halpern, who graduated from VCU in 2015 from the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, was initially skeptical about the European Innovation Academy, but he quickly found the experience to be invaluable for his entrepreneurship training.

“I thought, how could three weeks be worth a summer class? But we got there, and it was one of the most stressful, productive and enlightening experiences of my life,” he said.

Halpern’s team, which included students from the University of Michigan; the University of California, Berkeley; Imperial College London; and Deakin University in Australia; focused on a major problem in the emerging virtual reality industry: the fact that it is difficult for VR creators to monetize content.

“We realized that independent developers didn’t want to utilize the current advertising methodologies because they were disruptive to the users’ experience,” Halpern said. “We spent some time trying to figure out how we can make an advertisement in virtual reality that added to the experience, that people wanted to see.”

The team developed a prototype virtual reality ad, which might fit in between levels of a virtual reality game, and that allows the user to customize a 3-D model of a car, swapping out the color, style and features.

“We developed a modular, gamified ad that ships at noninterruptive points, so in between levels or in between loading screens,” Halpern said. “You would have a mini game scene pop up that’s branded by the sponsor and you would play a chance game — like a slot machine or plinko or three mystery chests, pick a door. And you would get in-game currency for doing so. The goal is to serve ads that people are interested in, and that make sense in that game.”

The idea, he said, is that virtual reality users would be more interested in seeing an advertisement that makes sense with a virtual reality context, while advertisers will be able to get valuable analytics about how the user interacts with the ad.

“You’re in virtual reality. Nobody wants to see a 2-D video [advertisement],” he said. “And so by providing this opportunity to customize a car, we can give really detailed brand interaction analytics to companies — we can say this is the style that people chose and looked at longest.”

I was so nervous until I got up on stage and then it was natural. 

Halpern handled marketing for the team at the European Innovation Academy, but is serving as CEO of the startup, Present, moving forward.

“We ended up in the top 10 teams at EIA, which means that I pitched this idea to 700 people,” he said. “It was amazing. I was so nervous until I got up on stage and then it was natural. But by doing that, we got really awesome exposure to investors. We got to speak to people who are specifically in the gaming industry, investing in game companies. People who run accelerators that specialize in enterprise level software, which is what we would be.”


Testing seafood for toxic metal

Hilton Bennett, who majored in mechanical engineering at VCU’s School of Engineering, worked as part of a team — alongside members from Italy, Norway and the United States — that launched a startup focused on quickly testing seafood for dangerous toxic metals.

The method to test for toxic metals was validated through testing by students at Politec University in Turin, and then developed by the team at the European Innovation Academy.

“They came up with [the method] based on an initiative by the World Health Organization to decrease the pollutants in seafood,” Bennett said. “So while the idea conceptually existed it hadn’t been developed physically perhaps beyond proving that chemical processes exist already to test for toxic metals in organic matter, which is where our team came in.”

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

Bennett’s team also was ranked among the academy’s top 10 best startups.

“Our team had a great idea to work on, we were diverse, we were multidisciplinary, we completed milestones ahead of schedule, we proved early on the validity of our idea and we were able to turn a concept into a physical prototype in less than two weeks,” he said.

Bennett and several team members, along with three of the Politec University students who brought the idea to the academy, are planning to move forward with the startup.

Attending the academy, he said, gave him experience with developing marketing strategies, team dynamics, leadership, how to fast track a product, how to understand customer segments, and much more.

“The experience was immersive, and fast paced,” he said. “I particularly enjoyed the multidisciplinary team aspect, and the opportunity to meet and work with people from over 70 countries. I discovered that there really wasn’t a way to meet everyone but that the people I met, almost more so than the academy, made the experience worthwhile. In hindsight I learned more about people than I did about products, but the information we received through the seminars was invaluable.”


An international entrepreneurship experience

A goal of the da Vinci Center is to be the preeminent home to innovation education. Taking part in high-level entrepreneurial experiences like the European Innovation Academy, Westlake said, is a major step in that direction.

“An important part of achieving this goal is recognizing that innovation is increasingly global and the ability for our students to engage in an international experience with peers and experts from over 70 different countries is invaluable,” he said.

VCU taking part in the academy, he added, is a prestigious opportunity open only to select institutions and students.

“There is a multistage application and interview process to ensure that elite students from across the world are selected for the experience,” he said. “The da Vinci Center’s Master of Product Innovation program was recognized as a leading center for cross-disciplinary innovation education. All students accepted to the MPI program are granted automatic admission to EIA. This speaks to the talent of our students and the strength of VCU and the da Vinci Center as a partner in innovation with leading organizations like EIA.”


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