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VCU Squared ignites student entrepreneurs

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Jack Alden spent eight weeks in 2011 studying glass sculpture at the remote Penland School of Crafts in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Mitchell County, North Carolina. He had picked up the craft years earlier while living in Florida.

“I’ve always been an artist at heart, and from the very first time I touched this medium I knew it was going to be what I would do for the rest of my life,” said Alden, who is now a senior in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business. “I was immediately mesmerized by the way the material moved, by the way it felt, by the way it looks.”

In 2012, when Alden moved to Richmond following his time in Western North Carolina, he had all the passion one could hope for, but he sought direction in translating that fervor into a livelihood.

Jake Greenbaum, also a senior in the VCU School of Business, was in a similar frame of mind by 2013.

“The start of it all was in cooking. I’ve worked in restaurants and one of the things that all chefs strive for is beautiful fresh flavors that you can’t imitate if ingredients aren’t fresh,” Greenbaum said. “I was trying to figure out where I could fit myself in with that market.”

At VCU, Alden and Greenbaum discovered a climate of entrepreneurship that touched all corners of the university and served as a resource for bolstering their ideas.

One of the driving forces behind that climate is VCU Squared, a universitywide pipeline that coordinates entrepreneurship activities across VCU’s campuses and among its students, faculty, staff and alumni. Its mission is to enhance the culture of entrepreneurship at VCU and to harness the talent within the university community. Its name stems from the shared acronym of Venture Creation University and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Alden had already started a business when he became acquainted with VCU Squared, but he said events the pipeline program hosted have helped him implement and advance his ideas.

His business, Studio 1050, creates and distributes works of glass art  from rented studio space in Richmond’s Manchester arts district and also provides glass sculpture lessons. Studio 1050 sells its art in galleries from Vermont to Florida and in several western states. It also fills large custom orders for weddings and businesses. Alden and co-owner Mitch Peterson employ a part-time staff of three and collaborate with three full-time artists.

“All of the talk of innovation at VCU is what really pushed me to have my own shop and have my own place where I dictate what is made and what is happening,” he said. “The VCU Squared events give me ideas that have made me say, ‘I could be doing this with my business. I could be moving my business to the next level.’”

Greenbaum’s business, Urban Choice Mushroom Farm, opened in October billed as Virginia’s only urban gourmet mushroom farm. He and his business partner, Chris Haynie, expect to produce 500 pounds of mushrooms per week, earning $5-$6 per pound wholesale and closer to $10 per pound at farmers markets.

Their long-term business plan includes six to nine full-time employees and three to five part-time workers.

Greenbaum’s most beneficial experience with VCU Squared was one-on-one mentoring with Nicky Colomb Monk, enterprise and economic development executive at VCU Innovation Gateway. Innovation Gateway, which helps facilitate VCU Squared, is a university resource that encourages commercialization of university inventions and supports research through collaborative agreements.

“Nicky and her team have been extremely helpful in the last few months,” Greenbaum said. “I came in for a meeting and they immediately opened their doors. Every resource that they could possibly give to me, they did. It’s great to be in a place where people authentically want to help.”

Some of the resources offered include legal counsel, financial aid, financial evaluations and financial predictions. In Greenbaum’s case, VCU Squared also leveraged its relationship with the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park so he could practice and experiment with high-quality lab equipment.

A growing resource

VCU Squared began during the 2012­–2013 academic year with three programs and activities and about 120 students. By the end of the 2013–2014 year, more than 15 programs and more than 800 students were involved, and 125 new company product ideas were pitched during that second year.

A recent survey of VCU students showed that 51 percent are interested in starting their own company at some point, and interest in entrepreneurship is spread across all schools at VCU. The survey also indicated that 15 percent of students either already had started a company or were actively trying to start one.

Faculty and staff also have heavy interest in entrepreneurship. Each year, faculty and staff  generate about $250 million in sponsored research and produce approximately 100 invention disclosures.

“With 50 percent of our students interested in entrepreneurship, it’s obviously something we want to focus on,” Monk said. “If that’s what the students are interested in, we have to build educational pathways to allow them to be better prepared to take that on.”

That ever-growing pool of pathways and resources originates in different places, such as the VCU da Vinci Center, Innovation Gateway and the university’s schools. VCU Squared encompasses all of these entities, spanning the entire university to connect available programs.

Some of the programs include

  • Pop-up pitches: These pitches “pop up” randomly around campus. They give students two minutes to pitch their idea for a chance to win $300. After pitching, all students are sent information on programs available to help them move their ideas forward.

  • Pre-acceleration programs: VCU Innovation Gateway has a number of pre-acceleration programs in place. Each program is designed to push students through a structured process based on Lean Startup methodologies that give them clear understanding of customer development strategy, completed market and competitive analyses, product development tools and overall initial traction so they are prepared to launch a business successfully.

  • Business plan competitions: VCU has several business plan competitions. The largest is the da Vinci Center's Venture Creation Competition. The competition comprises an undergraduate division and a graduate division in which students can compete for cash prizes and in-kind services that can help realize the commercial potential of the concept, invention and/or technology. Each division offers a $4,000 first prize, a $3,000 second prize, a $2,000 third prize and two $1,000 finalist awards. 

Not all students who participate in these activities move directly into owning a business.

“Exposure to entrepreneurship while in the university is important no matter what career you go into,” Monk said. “It’s a multidisciplinary way of thinking about things. So when students are eventually put on a project within a company, they don’t only think about developing that project, but also about how much it’s going to cost, what the end goals are, how the team is going to get there and who the team needs in order to get there. It’s a great mindset for anyone.”

Alden agreed.

“The fact that VCU is teaching students to think freely, to have their own ideas and to create their own jobs is crucial for the success of the city and the students,” he said.

That mindset is one that will transform the Richmond region into a home for innovation, said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D.

“There is no doubt that the Richmond region is becoming more and more an innovation-based economy, and productive startups will be a critically important part of our future,” he said. “Programs like VCU Squared can really leverage our urban setting to connect students with the many advantages the university and the city offer, and everyone will benefit.”

 

Alden, Greenbaum, their business partners, their employees and their customers are among those already experiencing the benefits.

“Having my own business has been the whole game plan since I was very young,” Greenbaum said. “It really means everything.”

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VCU Squared participant Jack Alden is co-owner of Studio 1050, a Richmond business that produces glass products and hosts courses on creating glass art.
VCU Squared participant Jack Alden is co-owner of Studio 1050, a Richmond business that produces glass products and hosts courses on creating glass art.
VCU Squared participant Jake Greenbaum is one-half of the leadership team at Urban Choice Mushroom Farm, “Virginia’s only urban gourmet mushroom farm.”
VCU Squared participant Jake Greenbaum is one-half of the leadership team at Urban Choice Mushroom Farm, “Virginia’s only urban gourmet mushroom farm.”
Blue oyster mushrooms at Urban Choice Mushroom Farm.
Blue oyster mushrooms at Urban Choice Mushroom Farm.
VCU is committed to supporting the growth of RVAs entrepreneurial ecosystem. To that end, VCU Innovation Gateway has led the development of a University-wide strategy for entrepreneurship call Venture Creation University, or VCU Squared.