Desmund Delaney is a senior financial technology major in the School of Business and the founder of 8:00AM, an online seller of new and pre-owned sneakers.

VCU student-led startup companies bring in more than $1 million

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After just one year, student-led startup companies taking part in Virginia Commonwealth University’s entrepreneurial support program have generated more than $1 million in total revenue, grants and investments.

Since it launched in 2015, 16 student teams have gone through VCU’s pre-accelerator program, which provides the students with a $5,000 stipend to participate in a three-month intensive program focused on guiding them through the challenging early stages of getting a startup company off the ground.

“These students are the real deal,” said Nicole Monk, enterprise and economic development executive in VCU’s Office of Research and Innovation. “This experience will help them be successful, whether they continue with these ventures, start new ventures or become intrapreneurial within larger companies. They will graduate and become agents of change for Richmond’s economy.”

They will graduate and become agents of change for Richmond’s economy.

Of the 16 student teams that have taken part in the pre-accelerator program, 14 have formed companies – three-quarters of which are woman or minority led – and they have created 29 full- or part-time jobs.

All told, the students’ companies have brought in a total of $1,002,348 in total revenue, grants and investments.

“The VCU pre-accelerator program is a great example of why VCU is truly becoming a Venture Creation University,” Monk said. “The program provides a very important resource that is accessible to all of VCU’s entrepreneurial students, not just students within one specific school. Schools of Business, Arts, Engineering, the College of Humanities and Sciences and more – they all leverage this central pre-accelerator program for their students.”

The companies include Board Grab, an online platform that serves as a marketplace for buying and selling used surfboards; Upchurch Chocolate, a small-batch, craft chocolate maker; Urban Choice Mushroom Farm, a provider of locally grown gourmet mushrooms; and 8:00AM, an online sneaker store that sells new and lightly worn sneakers.

“I think that the pre-accelerator program was amazing,” said Desmund Delaney, founder of 8:00AM and a senior financial technology major in the School of Business. “Aside from the financial support that the program offers to student-led ventures, the mentoring that you receive and the network of ‘seasoned’ entrepreneurs that is made available to you are invaluable.”

The pre-accelerator program is not led by VCU faculty, but by Richmond-area entrepreneurs who have successfully raised capital, launched companies and taken part in acceleration programs themselves.  The program also partners successful local entrepreneurs with the VCU student teams to serve as mentors.

Bryan Bostic, managing director of Spanish Moss Holdings LLC, served as a mentor during the spring session. Programs like the pre-accelerator program, he said, will play a pivotal role as the Richmond region aims to become a “top 10 startup community” in the United States – a goal that requires more than just ideas and corporate entity creation, but a massive commitment of resources that drive long-term sustainability.

“These resources are not all financial – the vast majority start at the university level where individual creativity and collaboration thrive, morphing ideas and innovation into transformative business opportunity,” Bostic said. “VCU has captured this entrepreneurial spirit through its pre-accelerator program and it is a game-changing example of the entrepreneurial energy and teaching methodologies driving the workforce of the future.”

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

In the spring semester, six entrepreneurs from the Richmond business community mentored nine student companies, challenging their ideas, business design strategies and presentations to create a more dynamic opportunity for furthering their entrepreneurial vision.

“What a pleasure it has been for us to collaborate with such bright and engaging individuals that are further advancing the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Richmond,” Bostic said. “As a mentor, we take these opportunities to serve very seriously as we are incubating future business and community leaders. As a community, we must continue to foster and advance startup companies through postgraduate programming, structured support hubs and innovation centers in order to achieve our top 10 objective.”

Mac Gambill, co-founder and CEO of Nudge, led the spring pre-accelerator program and said it has been encouraging to see what the teams have accomplished in such a short amount of time.

“The VCU program has been opening a lot of eyes around Richmond due largely in part to the longevity we've seen from the teams as well as the mentor network that has chosen to participate,” he said. “Even in its infancy we’ve seen a low attrition rate amongst the companies, and multiple teams have even gone on to be accepted into the local accelerator, Lighthouse Labs, which has quickly been identified as a top startup accelerator.”

Todd Nuckols, executive director of Lighthouse Labs, said VCU’s program plays an important part in building a healthy startup culture in the region.

“In our last cohort we saw two teams from VCU’s first program accepted into Lighthouse Labs and both of those go on to continue to generate revenue and job opportunities locally,” he said. “Pre-acceleration allows our community to invest in more founders and at the end of the day more founders with more options is where we need to be as a community.”