VCU hosts 54-hour ‘entrepralooza’ to spark business ventures

Virginia Commonwealth University hosts a plethora of innovators, entrepreneurs, businesspeople and average joes with a creative streak this weekend, Sept. 19-21, for RVA Startup Weekend, part of a larger, international program.

The 54-hour event brings together local visionaries who are both interested in starting their own businesses and need a starting point.

Brian Burkhardt doesn’t know very much about how the weekend works, but he was game to try. In his dual roles of rehabilitation engineer at the McGuire VA Medical Center and adjunct assistant professor in the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Department of the VCU School of Medicine, Burkhardt has been very active with research collaborations between VCU's biomedical engineering department and the VA. Additionally, he’s taking the necessary undergraduate courses at VCU so he can apply to a Ph.D. or M.D. He’s the epitome of whom Startup Weekend is geared toward.

“Most of my friends think I am crazy for doing it,” he said. “But getting a bunch of smart, motivated people together for a few all-nighters could produce some cool stuff, or at least some fun times.”

While he’s excited, Burkhardt said he also is a little nervous after looking over the packed schedule, which leaves little time for sleep. But since he is always looking for ways to makes things better or improve the way we do things, he could not pass up this opportunity.

“I have come up with a few good ideas over the years, but have been too intimidated by the process of turning an idea into something marketable,” he said. “So I have let these ideas pass me by. I want to learn how to turn an idea into a successful movement or business. How to find and build great teams.  I also love the idea of people from all walks of life coming together with — hopefully — the same motivation to make a difference in life. To observe the world, see a need, and start something that could benefit us all.”

This is also the first Startup Weekend for Ji Su Park, a second-year master's student in biochemistry and molecular biology at the VCU School of Medicine. Like Burkhardt, she is excited, but also a bit nervous to go so far out of her comfort zone. Also like Burkhardt, she brings an interdisciplinary and well-rounded background to the table.

“I guess you could say I have a slightly unusual background,” she said. “I am a molecular biologist, but I've been learning design on my own time when I'm not working in the lab, and I am participating in Startup Weekend as a beginner designer. I have recently decided to change careers to design — hopefully with some science involved — and felt that this was a great way to get some design experience, to network with other designers and creative people, and to just see who and what kinds of ideas are out there.”

This is the university’s first year hosting the event, but it makes sense. After all, where can you find a more concentrated group of visionaries than at VCU? According to Nicole Colomb Monk, enterprise and economic development executive at VCU Innovation Gateway, a recent survey of VCU students showed that more than 50 percent are interested in starting a company at some point. And, Monk said, at last year’s Charlottesville Startup Weekend, more students from VCU attended than from the University of Virginia.

“When the group got back from the event, they were very inspired and asked us to help them put together a start-up weekend for VCU,” Monk said. “I knew there was already an RVA Startup Weekend, so I reached out to Larkin Garbee at 804RVA, who is an organizer for the local event. We worked together to schedule the event during the semester and move it on campus.

“It’s a great example of how VCU is collaborating with and leveraging regional resources to feed its entrepreneurial community.”

Besides bringing entrepreneurs together, Startup Weekends — started in 2007 in Colorado — support validation and development of new products and companies. For VCU specifically, Monk said, it gives students a real-life hands-on experience with the start-up process. It also allows them to experience and "test" the start-up environment.

The RVA event kicks off Friday at 6 p.m. in the University Student Commons. Attendees will pitch their best ideas and inspire others to join their team. On Saturday and Sunday, teams will focus on customer development, validating their ideas, practicing the Lean Startup Methodology and building a minimal viable product. On Sunday evening, teams will demonstrate their prototypes and receive valuable feedback from a panel of experts.

VCU plans to further collaborate with 804RVA and Lighthouse labs to launch the Startup Next Program, a pre-accelerator program that could be a "next step" for teams coming out of Startup Weekend. It will be an intense, five-week mentorship program consisting of three-hour weekly sessions.

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Area business people who will serve as mentors at the 2014 RVA Startup Weekend meeting for a training workshop. Photos courtesy of 804RVA.
Area business people who will serve as mentors at the 2014 RVA Startup Weekend meeting for a training workshop. Photos courtesy of 804RVA.
With over 33,000 students, over 20,000 employees and annual sponsored research that exceeds $250 million each year, VCU is a hotspot for innovation with greater Richmond and the state of Virginia. As a critical element of the regional innovation system, 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.