Amid a very different summer in 2020, student entrepreneurs in Baltimore had a chance to push their ventures forward with the help of a new program from local university leaders.
Local entrepreneurship leaders spun up AddVenture, a summer pre-accelerator that provided a curriculum built for the program, mentorship and a Slack community for startups from 14 Baltimore-area colleges and high schools.
When the COVID-19 pandemic moved programming online, the leaders of eight university-based accelerators started sharing ideas and resources as they shifted programs to a virtual format. Along with pivoting spring demo days to virtual, they looked ahead on the calendar and saw a summer that would have fewer opportunities than usual for jobs, internships and other experiential learning.
Soon, a focus emerged around helping students at the earliest stage of their ventures, and impact that would stretch beyond the summer.
“Really where we serve the early-stage entrepreneurs is events through gatherings where they can come and test the waters of entrepreneurship and learn the very basics, and those are precisely the thing that aren’t happening in the fall,” said Pava LaPere, cofounder of Innov8MD, which is the college entrepreneurship initiative that brought the leaders to the table. They saw value in a program that could help lay the foundation where founders could get into an accelerator program. “An accelerator isn’t meant for you to figure it out. An accelerator is meant to scale what you know works, and we’re trying to help students get to that point.”
Programming focused on iterating on an idea for a new venture with areas like market research and customer discovery. The key question was: “How can you take this and actually turn it into a sustainable venture?” LaPere said.
Tools to help teams get there included an online curriculum developed by LaPere and others that students could go through at their own pace, and discussion sessions on six topics. For one-on-one support, they also held office hours each day for six weeks. In all, 11 mentors worked with the teams over six weeks from late June to early August.
As it turned out, there was lots of interest in this approach. They had 128 teams on the Slack group for the program where entrepreneurs could access the materials and join peer groups. In the end, 20 qualified for a demo day that closed out the program in August. It included teams from 11 colleges and universities, as well as three local high schools. LaPere also noted diversity: Of the 128 teams who were on the Slack, 80 are woman-led, 50 are Black-led, 12 are Latinx-led, 21 are immigrant-led and 13 are LGTBQ+-led.
“I think they’ve proven that there’s a thriving ecosystem already and proven that it’s diverse, and also that there’s more work to be done. We offered something and there was such an overwhelming response,” LaPere said.
As for the students? “They’re hungry for more,” she said.
It also shows another evolution of collaboration among the folks who deliver programming. Typically, spinning up such a program might encounter competition between institutions, or the bureaucratic realties within a university. But with the pandemic forcing quick action, that fell away. The already-present move toward community through Innov8MD followed by the pandemic “forced some creativity on all of us and opened up our minds a little bit and gave us license to do this,” said Wendy Bolger, director of the Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Loyola University Maryland.
Here’s a look at the ventures who pitched at demo day in August, with details from AddVenture; check out video pitches here:
- Equalyze, “an online platform designed to serve Baltimore’s small business community by connecting them with knowledgeable undergraduate business students via personalized virtual consultations,” per AddVenture. Created by Catherine Sanders, Spencer Blair, Franklin Parks and Brendan O’Connell, it was one of the first-place winners.
- Femstartup, founded by Adeola Ajani of Towson University, “provides knowledge, access, and information to give women/womxn the power of decisionmaking for career success and financial security that the market currently doesn’t offer,” per AddVenture. The company was a fellow first-place winner.
- ChillWave, an immersive soundscape podcast founded by MICA’s Simdi
- Uganda National-ID Associated Healthcare Database, founded by Sean Sebastian Darcy of Johns Hopkins University, is designed to be “more intuitive and affordable than current standard Electronic Health Records,” per AddVenture.
- Picnix, created by Adam Reisfield of University of Maryland College Park, is a social media platform for food recommendations.
- Turtle Chair, a chair designed for sloped or rough terrain, was created by Nickie Lambert of Anne Arundel Community College.
- Gymnast544 Mods, created by Maryland high schooler Arjun Oberoi, makes modification kits for Nintendo DS.
- Assay, created by Taylor Evans of JHU, “publishes stories that examine the relationships between STEM and creativity to inspire the next generation of critical thinkers,” per AddVenture.
- Counting Stars Foundation, founded by Estelle Ra of University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is working on an annual competition to bring change in the healthcare and biotech industry.
- LiveTheGame, founded by Elizabeth Childs of University of Maryland, College Park, uses augmented reality to take games offscreen.