VCU computer science students Shauna Ely and Judah Sebastian work in Founder's Corner to help VCU student entrepreneurs to launch startup companies. (Photo by Brian McNeill)

Computer science majors help VCU student-led startup companies launch websites, develop apps

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In Founder’s CornerVirginia Commonwealth University’s co-working space for student entrepreneurs, computer science students Shauna Ely and Judah Sebastian are working together to develop a website for a VCU student’s company that sells high-end sneakers and clothing, while also tinkering with a possible logo design for another VCU student’s software startup.

“We are helping student entrepreneurs make minimally viable products, also known as MVPs, in order to demonstrate their ideas to wider audiences,” said Ely, a postbaccalaureate student in the School of Engineering. “We’re helping them by building their web presence with web and mobile applications.”

This semester, Ely, Sebastian and a third computer science student, Matthew Argao, are interning with VCU Innovation Economy and are providing their computer science expertise to the seven VCU student-led startups taking part in VCU’s Pre-Accelerator Program, which provides students with promising business ideas a $5,000 stipend from VCU’s Quest for Innovation Fund, as well as access to a three-month experience that guides them through the challenging early stages of launching a company.

“The Pre-Accelerator is all about supporting our entrepreneurial students and helping them build, test and iterate on their product or business ideas,” said Nicole Monk, executive director of VCU Innovation Economy. “By engaging a group of computer science students to work alongside them, we're providing them with resources to do just that.”

The program brought on computer science students for the first time this semester, Monk said, because they can provide technical expertise that may be missing from the startup founders’ teams.

“The hope is that by providing access to students in other disciplines, with other talents, we can enhance the experience while potentially strengthening the business,” Monk said.

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So far, the computer science students’ help has been invaluable, according to the student startup founders.

“[They] have been invaluable assets in the design, build and web [development] process,” said Bryce Johnson, a senior in the Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences and a founder of Sole Hunter, an online marketplace for high-end sneakers and clothing. “They bring a wide array of knowledge but also a clear understanding of the concept that we’re going for.”

“To say that they have been an important addition to the group would be an understatement and I hope that more computer science students begin assisting with future Pre-Accelerator programs,” he added. “It really gives startups a competitive edge, getting knowledge and guidance from those in the [computer science] field. We are lucky to have them.”

Matt Teachey, a student in the Master of Product Innovation program of the da Vinci Center, is co-founder of Flight, a craft beer delivery service. The computer science students provided advice on how to quickly launch their platform and researched solutions to allow customers to sign for beer deliveries digitally.

“So far, the CS student have given us advice to use Shopify for now to get the website running with our basic functionality,” Teachey said. “They told us Shopify has plug-ins that can restrict ordering to particular zip codes, which is needed for us, and they also said incorporating digital signatures would be doable.”

Sebastian, a freshman computer science major, said he wanted to take part in the program for the opportunity to get the hands-on experience of working with all of the students’ startups, ranging from craft beer, custom college care packages, data analytics, accessible pet care information, woodworking work spaces and verifying product authenticity.

“I saw this program as a great way to start using and honing my skills and experience in the field of computer science and web development,” he said. “So far the program has been a great experience, the atmosphere is productive and friendly, and it’s great to be able to help someone see their goals accomplished.”

Argao, a postbaccalaureate computer science student, said he was interested in the chance to work with his fellow students as they get their companies off the ground.

“Student-run businesses are all at varying stages of development, allowing valuable insight into the entrepreneurial process at every level of realization,” he said. “The problems they face are interesting and the learning environment of the program is particularly inviting — I'm definitely glad I was able to take part in this opportunity.”

For Ely, the program was a chance to put her computer science skills to work.

“I wanted a chance to use the skills that I have been building on since I started the computer science program,” she said. “The experience has been great. I have learned so much from the student entrepreneurs, my fellow interns and the team leads.”


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