VCU entrepreneurs’ companies receive $20,000 in funding, mentorship through Richmond startup accelerator

Chocolate is prepared in the Upchurch Chocolate Co. kitchen.
Chocolate is prepared in the Upchurch Chocolate Co. kitchen.

Two companies formed at Virginia Commonwealth University and a third founded by VCU alumni have been accepted into Lighthouse Labs’ accelerator program – a move that provides them with $20,000 in funding, mentorship by top Richmond-area entrepreneurs and the opportunity to pitch investors in several major cities.

Upchurch Chocolate Co., which produces gourmet, single-origin chocolate bars, and Consumer & Community Connections, which provides research, marketing, data collection and evaluation services, were both formed at VCU and participated this summer in Go For It!, a new program that provides entrepreneurial students in the College of Humanities and Sciences with intensive support to help get their business ideas off the ground.

In addition, Painless1099, which helps independent contractors such as freelance designers and real estate agents save for tax season, also was tapped by Lighthouse Labs for the program. Ace Callwood and Justin Kauszler, the company’s founders, are both graduates of the VCU School of Business entrepreneurship program.

Whether it’s partnerships through VCU, the Lighthouse Labs Accelerator, or mentorship from local business owners, we couldn’t be more grateful. 

 Alexander Burlingame, founder of Upchurch Chocolate Co.
Alexander Burlingame, founder of Upchurch Chocolate Co.

“We are consistently blown away by all the support we’ve received from Richmond,” said Alexander Burlingame, founder of Upchurch Chocolate and a senior in the Department of Philosophy. “Whether it’s partnerships through VCU, the Lighthouse Labs Accelerator, or mentorship from local business owners, we couldn’t be more grateful. To us, Lighthouse represents a gateway into Richmond’s fantastic community of entrepreneurs and professionals that are excited to help us succeed.”

Being accepted into Lighthouse Labs will mean Upchurch Chocolate will have numerous opportunities that it otherwise would not have, Burlingame said.

“We’re receiving seed funding to build out our kitchen, mentorship through a network of Richmond entrepreneurs, and weekly how-to workshops on building our business,” he said. “By the end of the program we’ll get to travel to different cities and pitch our business to investors – a process that Lighthouse will help us prepare for and navigate.”

Consumer & Community Connections, also known as C3, specializes in helping researchers recruit and collect data from community samples and hard-to-reach populations. It was 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.

Michell Pope, Ph.D., and Jasmine Abrams, Ph.D., who are both recent graduates of the Health Psychology doctoral program in the Department of Psychology, are co-founders of the marketing, recruitment and data collection firm Consumer & Community Connections.
Michell Pope, Ph.D., and Jasmine Abrams, Ph.D., who are both recent graduates of the Health Psychology doctoral program in the Department of Psychology, are co-founders of the marketing, recruitment and data collection firm Consumer & Community Connections.

Pope said they are “extremely excited to have been accepted into such a prestigious program.”

“We are delighted that the program directors [and] staff are confident in our business venture and share our vision for advancing research through innovation,” she said. “This program will provide us a platform to inform researchers and the community-at-large about the services that C3 offers.”

C3 is currently working with researchers at VCU and VCU Health, as well as at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“Our ultimate goal is to engage the community, increase client productivity and efficiency, while at the same time moving research forward with expediency,” Pope said.

Upchurch Chocolate, meanwhile, is in a “really fun spot” right now, Burlingame said.

“We’re starting to gain traction in the Richmond area and land our chocolate in new stores every day,” he said. “Nothing excites us more than hearing someone say, ‘I’ve never tasted anything like that!’ when they try our chocolate. Since we’re still introducing our chocolate to new stores each week, we get to hear that response pretty regularly.”

Upchurch Chocolate bars are currently available in Richmond at For the Love of Chocolate, Harvest Grocery, Saison Market, Shields Market, Libbie Market, Strawberry Street Market, Big Secret and 804RVA, as well as through the company's website.

Justin Kauszler and Ace Callwood, founders of Painless1099
Justin Kauszler and Ace Callwood, founders of Painless1099

Painless1099 helps independent contractors by reserving funds when they get paid for their taxes, sending the rest to their checking accounts. Callwood and Kauszler previously collaborated to found Coffivity, which provides the ambient noises of a coffee shop through your computer while you work.

Nicky Colomb Monk, enterprise and economic development executive with VCU Innovation Gateway, said the Lighthouse Labs’ funding awards demonstrate how VCU aims to cultivate and empower entrepreneurial students and feed the growing regional ecosystem.

“Two of the companies [that have been accepted into Lighthouse Labs] are fresh out of VCU's pre-acceleration program and a third company is co-founded by two VCU alumni,” Monk said. “It's a very real example of how VCU is a pipeline of innovation and entrepreneurial talent for the greater Richmond region.”

Through its universitywide initiative Venture Creation University, or VCU Squared, VCU is committed to supporting the growth of RVA’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and to provide all entrepreneurial students at VCU with access to pathways to launch their business ideas.

“It's a very exciting time to be at VCU,” Monk said. “Through the Venture Creation University initiative, we are working to ensure every student at VCU has access to an entrepreneurial pathway. That pathway should include programs that range from a student’s initial exposure to entrepreneurship, to educational courses, through to programs focused on product validation, company formation and even early seed funding.”

It's a very real example of how VCU is a pipeline of innovation and entrepreneurial talent for the greater Richmond region.

She added that VCU has recently launched a Certificate in Venture Creation, which is open to all VCU undergraduates, as well as INNOVATE, VCU's new dorm focused on innovation and entrepreneurship.

“All this exciting activity showcases how Virginia Commonwealth University is truly a Venture Creation University,” she said.

Lighthouse Labs, which was founded by VCU alumni Larkin Garbee and Todd Nuckols, will be located at INNOVATE at VCU this fall. VCU students will have the opportunity to apply for paid internships through Lighthouse Labs to work with the five startup companies accepted into the accelerator program. For more on the internship, visit https://news.vcu.edu/article/Rare_internship_opportunity_for_students_in_local_business_accelerator .

 

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