July 17, 2015
Craft chocolate, healthy tea and custom jewelry: Program helps student startups get off the ground
The Go For It! program is supporting seven VCU student-run companies this summer.
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Alexander Burlingame, a senior philosophy major at Virginia Commonwealth University, was inspired to launch his craft chocolate company while working in a local coffee shop and observing firsthand the passion Richmonders have for specialty coffee.
“People take coffee very seriously and people take craft beer very seriously. But what about chocolate?” Burlingame said. “Being the [cultural] and foodcentric community that Richmond is, I just saw this need.”
Burlingame taught himself how to make chocolate in his apartment by reading Internet forums and testing recipes and methods to find what worked best through trial and error.
“It’s a pretty dynamic process,” he said. “You just have to try to do it yourself and fail a few times before you make anything worth eating.”
I’m a college student who’s still figuring out how to navigate life, much less how to run a business. The program has helped me visualize what this business might look like for Richmond and for me personally.
Burlingame’s company, Upchurch Chocolate Co., has three chocolate bars ready to hit the market. One is a fruity, single-origin Madagascar bar, with only two ingredients — cocoa and sugar. One is a goat milk bar made with cocoa beans from Ecuador that tastes like a cheese Danish. And one is a chocolate bar made with Lamplighter Roasting Co. coffee beans.
Upchurch Chocolate is one of seven startups taking part in Go For It!, a new program at VCU that provides entrepreneurial students in the College of Humanities and Sciences with intensive support to help them get their business ideas off the ground.
“I’m a college student who’s still figuring out how to navigate life, much less how to run a business,” Burlingame said. “The program has helped me visualize what this business might look like for Richmond and for me personally.”
The 12-week pre-accelerator program is being led by VCU Innovation Gateway in the Office of Research and Innovation, in partnership with 804RVA and Lighthouse Labs, which provides guidance, accountability and investor connections to startups in the Richmond area through mentorship, acceleration, hackathon and bootcamp programs.
Each of the program’s participants receives a stipend of up to $5,000, funded by philanthropic gifts from alumni, friends and advisory board members of the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU.
“We invested $35,000 this year to pay these students stipends, and they have already either generated revenue or received investments totaling more than $180,000,” said Nicole Colomb, enterprise and economic development executive with VCU Innovation Gateway. “That really shows how much passion and dedication these students have for taking their ideas to the next level.”
Of the seven companies, five already have started to generate revenue or have received investments, Colomb said.
“It’s absolutely exceeded our expectations, but we knew these students were going to be successful no matter what,” she said. “One of the great things about VCU students is the absence of that attitude of entitlement. They show up ready to roll up their sleeves.”
One of the great things about VCU students is the absence of that attitude of entitlement. They show up ready to roll up their sleeves.
Go For It! is broken into three month-long labs. In the first, students focus on customer development and defining a minimal viable product. “That’s going out and talking to people and asking, ‘What’s the problem? And will my product actually solve it?’” Colomb said.
In the second month, participants develop a prototype, and then validate it through testing to see if their product is something customers want.
The third lab — which wraps up at the end of this month — helps participants hone their pitch.
“They’re continuing to do product development and customer validation, but the lab is now focused on developing a pitch of how they can communicate their story,” Colomb said. “It’s about describing the problem, solution and business model clearly. It’s also about outlining the traction that has been made to date that validates the viability of their business model. “
The program will culminate with a demo day in which all of the teams will deliver their pitch to VCU faculty, community members, entrepreneurs and local investors.
Jim Coleman, Ph.D., dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, said Go For It! has already wildly exceeded his expectations.
“Go For It! has been an amazing demonstration of what a little bit of money coupled with an organized and rigorous program run by experienced entrepreneurs, and with mentorship, can do for motivated young people,” he said.
Coleman added that he has been awed by the participants, which include students from across the humanities and sciences disciplines. He said they represent a diversity of geographic background, race, gender and academic major and the result is a diverse array of entrepreneurial ideas and companies.
“They are energetic, smart, gritty students with passions for what they are doing and great skill in articulating their efforts,” he said. “It is clear from my conversations with them that the Go For It! program has been immensely helpful and has inspired them as entrepreneurs.”
Consumer & Community Connections, or C3, is another company taking part in Go For It! Co-founded by Michell Pope, Ph.D., and Jasmine Abrams, Ph.D., both recent graduates of the Health Psychology Program in the Department of Psychology, the company provides research, marketing, data collection and evaluation services to program managers, researchers and small businesses.
The skills we have learned thus far have and will continue to help us navigate and become successful in the business world.
Pope said Go For It! has been instrumental in helping the company develop its business model, which aims to help researchers and academics better engage with the community.
“Each week we have the opportunity to work with like-minded entrepreneurs and receive invaluable feedback and advice about how to clearly communicate the value of our service and products to potential clients and investors,” she said.
Go For It! has also provided the company with crucial networking opportunities and mentorship, Pope said.
“The skills we have learned thus far have and will continue to help us navigate and become successful in the business world,” she said.
Other teams taking part in the inaugural Go For It! session include:
- Fruitea, which aims to offer several types of healthy teas, possibly via a food cart, as well as bottled sales for mass distribution.
- Think of Us, a web platform with interactive videos that help young people in foster care navigate the resources available to them.
- Control Cases, which plans to offer a cell phone case that has a compartment to store oral contraceptives, as well as an app to track usage and remind the user when to take a pill.
- Soul Centric Jewelry, a custom jewelry business that is scaling up the student founder’s already successful Etsy store.
- Amicitia, a gaming website that helps “homebrewers” develop their own video games.
Larkin Garbee of Lighthouse Labs and 804RVA said a key reason the program has proven successful is because it emphasizes experiential learning.
“It’s very hands-on,” she said. “You just have to go out and do it. You have to quote unquote ‘Go For It!’”
Garbee said Go For It! has been particularly exciting because it focuses on students in the humanities and sciences.
“A lot of times you’ll see entrepreneurs coming out of the business school or the School of Engineering,” she said. “This really shows that entrepreneurship exists across all platforms.”
Garbee pointed to Control Cases as a great example of how Go For It! is supporting student innovation.
“[The student] had an idea, literally two weeks before being accepted into the program, of building a birth control case for your cell phone. Talk about back of the napkin,” she said. “And she has already 3-D printed a couple versions of a prototype of what she’d like her product to look like.”
Todd Nuckols of Lighthouse Labs said the program is allowing the students to explore entrepreneurship and play a role in Richmond’s startup economy.
“The students from the College of Humanities and Sciences bring great creativity, imagination and drive to startup life,” he said. “It has been impressive to see the range of concepts from chocolate to role-playing games.”
“Lighthouse,” he continued, “has succeeded in using best practices around acceleration and lean startup growth strategies in the broader [central Virginia] market and it is truly exciting to bring our expertise, mentors and services directly to the students of VCU in this unique and first-of-its-kind collaboration with the Go For It! program.”
Go For It! is part of the university’s VCU Squared strategy to enhance the culture of entrepreneurship at VCU and harness the entrepreneurial talent of VCU faculty and students.
It is also part of the College of Humanities and Sciences’ strategic plan, Pathways for Transformation, which support students’ cocurricular activities, including undergraduate research, studying abroad, engaging in community service, working at an internship or pursuing entrepreneurship.
Bethanie Constant, senior director of development for the College of Humanities and Sciences, said VCU greatly appreciates the alumni and friends who supported Go For It! in its first year.
“They did so, not out of obligation, but rather because they are dedicated and committed to the success of the university, they passionately care about our students and they want to see a prosperous and healthy community,” she said. “Their gifts truly provided a transformational learning opportunity for our students.”
Featured image up top : Alexander Burlingame, a senior philosophy major, displays his company's first three chocolate bars, which are poised to hit to the market in Richmond.
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