VCU students and advisers took part in the da Vinci Center's Start Up Spring Break in March. Lighthouse U builds on programs, such as Start Up Spring Break, that support entrepreneurial Virginia college students. (Photo courtesy VCU da Vinci Center)

Lighthouse U receives $1M award to foster student entrepreneurship across Virginia

The project by Lighthouse Labs and VCU’s da Vinci Center is supported by a grant from GO Virginia, which funds initiatives to grow and diversify regional economies across the state.

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A new project by nationally ranked Richmond startup accelerator Lighthouse Labs and the da Vinci Center, Virginia Commonwealth University’s student hub for innovation and entrepreneurship, was awarded a $1 million grant on Tuesday to train and support entrepreneurial college students across Virginia interested in launching startups.

The project, called Lighthouse U, aims to provide students with the targeted intellectual capital and other resources required to create high-growth entrepreneurial companies or gain high-paying employment.

Beginning this fall, Lighthouse U will hold workshops across Virginia that will offer real-world, out-of-classroom experiential training that complements in-classroom curriculum for innovation- and entrepreneurial-driven students.

Then, in October, Lighthouse Labs and the da Vinci Center will host the inaugural Virginia Startup Weekend, in which students from Virginia colleges and universities will gather in Richmond to attend a variety of activities offering training in human-centered design, customer discovery, idea validation and rapid prototyping.

“Virginia is home to an elite collection of colleges and universities that produce some of the most talented innovators and entrepreneurs in the world,” said Garret Westlake, Ph.D., executive director of the da Vinci Center, a collaboration of VCU’s schools of the Arts and Business, and the colleges of Engineering and Humanities and Sciences. “The formation of Lighthouse U establishes an infrastructure that connects all of Virginia's colleges and universities with regional- and state-level resources that support the development and retention of talent and startups in the commonwealth.

“VCU is committed to being a catalyst within this model that leverages Richmond as the capital city and VCU's commitment to innovation and creating 21st-century jobs,” he said.

Lighthouse U is funded by a $1 million grant from GO Virginia, a bipartisan, business-led economic development initiative that supports programs to create more high-paying jobs through incentivized collaboration among business, education and government to diversify and strengthen the economy in every region of Virginia.

Lighthouse U combines Lighthouse Labs’ expertise in developing high-growth businesses with the da Vinci Center’s expertise in academic and experiential learning for student-entrepreneur development.

“Lighthouse U represents an unprecedented opportunity and collaboration for future founders to learn, stay, and grow amazing companies in Virginia," said Todd Nuckols, executive director of Lighthouse Labs. "We are honored to partner with VCU and collaborate with other Virginia academic institutions, corporations and investment partners to craft strong pathways for startup creation in Virginia. We invite the voices of others in higher ed, corporate innovation, and capital investment to join us in the rise of entrepreneurship in Virginia. This is merely the beginning of the journey!"

The project aims to convert more skilled graduating Virginia college and university students into full-time founders and entrepreneurs creating high-growth businesses and jobs in Virginia, addressing the current trend of talent leaving Virginia to pursue innovation, startups and out-of-state jobs.

“We recognize that creating high-growth companies is challenging and the odds are rarely in an entrepreneur’s favor,” Westlake said. “For this reason, the student participants in Lighthouse U are simultaneously earning nationally recognized certificates in project management and design thinking so that if the company they are forming is ultimately unsuccessful, they can join one of Virginia's outstanding small, medium or large enterprises as a technical team member with outstanding earning potential.” 

The project is leveraging lessons learned from the da Vinci Center’s previous experience hosting programs such as the Virginia Startup Spring Break, in which 20 teams of students from James Madison University, Old Dominion University, the University of Richmond, Virginia Tech, the College of William & Mary and VCU took part in an entrepreneurship boot camp and competed for $25,000 in equity-free funding.

Participants in Lighthouse U will have an opportunity to compete in the 2019 Virginia Startup Spring Break, co-presented by the da Vinci Center and Lighthouse Labs.

Lighthouse U is aiming to send at least 10 new companies in 2019 and 10 in 2020 to Lighthouse Labs, which provides $20,000 to selected startups without taking cash or equity and connects promising founders with proven mentors, investors, support services, working space and lean startup education to move from idea to viable high growth venture in three months.

Startups previously accelerated by Lighthouse Labs, which is also locally supported by Activation Capital, have created more than 120 jobs, raised more than $25 million in outside capital, and grown to a portfolio value of more than $130 million. Lighthouse Labs itself has been named a top-30 seed-stage accelerator for the past two years, and alumni startups of Lighthouse Labs are receiving national recognition as well: Kyndi was named as a Hot 100 Startup of 2018, and RoundTrip was featured in The New York Times in August.

"With limited resources, we have a proven history of contributing to startup success and economic growth that can be further scaled to have even greater positive impact in Virginia, and serve as a model attractive to others with similar challenges,” said Dan Myers, managing director of Lighthouse Labs.