VentureLab Founders Building Startups in an Uncertain World
By Gosia Glinska
The middle of a global pandemic may not seem like an auspicious time to chase a dream of entrepreneurial success. And yet, the highly selective VentureLab program at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business was humming with startups all summer.
The 2020 VentureLab cohort consists of 16 ventures founded by current UVA students and recent alumni, including five companies with founding teams from Darden. Participants, eligible to apply for up to $7,500 in funds through the program, are working on a wide range of innovative products and services, such as remotely deployed solar panels, an online mental health and wellness platform, and a composting operation that uses worms to biodegrade waste to produce high-quality fertilizer.
Alexander Spencer (MBA ’20), whose job offer with a fast-growing restaurant point-of-sale provider was rescinded due to COVID-19, turned his setback into an opportunity to hone his entrepreneurial skills through VentureLab. Since the program launched in early March, Spencer and his classmate Stephen Joy (MBA ‘20) have been ramping up the development of TACK, a digital payments platform that helps facilitate cash transactions, such as tips and donations. “The program gave me time, resources and mentors for the summer and helped renew my passion and energy during this scary time,” said Spencer.
VentureLab is offered by Darden’s Batten Institute, which has supported an early stage summer incubator program for more than 20 years. This year, the program shifted to all-virtual curriculum and mentoring, delivering an array of webinars and presentations with Darden faculty, including Professors Raul Chao, Damon DeVito, Yael Grushka-Cockayne, Saras Sarasvathy and June West, along with industry experts such as Doug Lebda (EMBA ’14), founder and CEO of Lending Tree.
At the heart of VentureLab are the ideas of Sarasvathy, an authority on high-performance entrepreneurship. Sarasvathy discovered that expert entrepreneurs use methods and techniques that minimize a reliance on prediction and instead focus on controlling the environment and their outcomes. These methods, and the underlying decision-making logic, is what Sarasvathy calls effectuation.
A key tenet of effectuation is the Crazy Quilt Principle, which encourages founders to engage with a wider community of potential partners and stakeholders. “The Crazy Quilt has been incredibly important for me,” said Wilson Hunter, co-founder of CardBoard Live, a game-streaming platform with e-commerce opportunities. “You have all those extremely talented people you can talk to. You don’t necessarily know the immediate outcome of those interactions, and it doesn’t have to be transactional, but every situation is a learning experience, and that’s how you grow into being a successful entrepreneur.”
Hunter and co-founder James Hsu, who had been members of the 2019 VentureLab cohort, won this year’s Kathryne Carr Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence. The award recognizes ventures with the most potential for commercial success and whose founders exhibit exceptional character traits, such as leadership, persistence, grit and moxie.
“We built our minimum viable product at the incubator,” said Hunter. “And we learned how to make that first dollar. The award helped us scale.” Since their time in the program, Hunter and Hsu completed the Catalyst accelerator, won Charlottesville Business Innovation Council Startup of the Year for 2020 and raised $1.5 million in venture funding.
Hunter spoke at a recent virtual panel of Kathryne Carr Award Winners, which marked the end of the full-time summer portion of VentureLab. He was joined by 2019 Carr Award winner Aneesh Dhawan, co-founder of PurPics, and Beanstalk Farms founders Michael and Jack Ross, who took home the award in 2018.
Jason Brewster, director of VentureLab, is confident that members of the 2020 cohort are well equipped to face the current crisis. The program provided them with an inspiring community of founders and mentors, a robust network of potential investors and partners, and a rigorous, immersive curriculum designed to catalyze their innovative thinking.
“By using effectuation as a foundational component of this program, we’re giving participants the best set of tools to deal with a time when the old normal is no longer normal,” said Brewster. “Entrepreneurship is the right mentality for today because entrepreneurs are always seeking new needs and new opportunities.”
What resonated deeply with this year’s founders is the effectual approach to uncertainty. As Sarasvathy summarized in her Lemonade Principle, expert entrepreneurs excel at dealing with the unexpected. They don’t view surprises and contingencies as obstacles to predict and overcome. Instead, they see them as clues and opportunities to create new products, ventures and markets.
“Because of COVID-19 and all the surprises out there, this is probably the year of the Lemonade Principle,” said Dhawan, speaking during the panel. “There will always be random things you can’t predict, but this year, it’s another level. We welcome the multitude of surprises thrown our way, and this is true for all entrepreneurs.”
2020 VentureLab Startups
Arbitrage, founded by Jasmanet Chahal (Col ’21), Mihir Tandon (Col ’21), Sai Samayamanthula (Col ‘20), Aditya Sorot (Col ’21) and Pramod Grama (Col ’21), aims to become a sustainable fashion brand and the premier destination for college students to buy their clothing. artofarbitrage.net
DoubleThink News, founded by Jeffrey Tan (Engr ’20; M.Engr ’23), Hao Liu (Engr ’20) and Johnny Wong (Engr ’21), is a platform for today’s news readers to discover and identify different viewpoints about trending news topics. doublethinks.com
PERC, founded by Alan Fischer (MBA ’20), is building the South’s leading craft coffee brand focusing on community-oriented cafés and empowering wholesale relationships. perccoffee.com
Piaz, founded by Saule Kassengaliyeva (MBA ’20), offers flavor-packed dumplings inspired by recipes of female refugees and immigrants who want to share their heritage with eaters across the United States. Piaz is currently selling cards and stickers; find them under the Store tab. piazfoods.com
Pick-Me-Up, founded by Sasha Duckworth (Col ’21), Emily Smith and Kurien Thomas (Batten ’21), is a mental health first-aid kit that equips stressed people with wellness items and mindfulness exercises. Easily enter your phone number on their website and start interacting with a chatbot that will check in with you as you need. mypickmeup.com
Q-Rayt, founded by Srikar Gullapalli (MBA ’20), enables universities to build digital lifelong learning communities around their knowledge assets, with Reddit-like social engagement.
Qwerty, founded by Devansh Agarwal (Col ’20) and Nikhil Saraf, is a platform where students can connect, request and share lecture notes directly with their peers in the same class. Qwerty is running the Qwerty Scholars Program where you can provide a mini-scholarship to students in need of Qwerty’s educational services. qwertynotes.com
RevArt, founded by Patti Pan (MBA ’20), Vivian Song, Michael Song (MBA ’20), Jiacheng Li (Class of 2021) and Wen Zhang (Class of 2021), is a professional art resource service platform connecting commercial brands or business owners with artists and art IPs. A limited edition collection of canvases to socks to book lamps crafted by selected artists is available on revart-popup.squarespace.com
Rise Energy Systems, founded by Matthew Miller (Engr ’21), creates ground-based, remotely-deployed solar panels that allow energy to be generated in underutilized areas such as driveways and parking lots. www.riseenergysystems.com
SergoMED, founded by Kevin Chang (Engr ’20), Vincent Sciortino (Engr ’20) and Vikram Seshadri (Engr ’20), is developing an auxiliary medical device to mitigate musculoskeletal overuse injuries associated with operating endoscopes during colonoscopy.
ShadowDoc, founded by UVA Health medical resident Nitin Tiwari and Benjamin Tran (Med ‘20), connects high school and college students with medical professionals to arrange shadowing experiences in a variety of specialties. shadowdoc.org
Shelf Life, founded by Jack Hermann (Engr ’21), Anisha Sharma (Engr ’21) and Andrew Wheatley (Engr ’21), is developing two vacuum drawers that can replace standard refrigerator shelf drawers to drastically increase the shelf life of your produce. Their current offering is SpaceBox, a plastic food container that can increase the shelf life of your food by almost 3 times.
TACK, founded by Stephen Joy (MBA ’20) and Alexander Spencer (MBA ’20), simplifies money transfers where we need it most. It provides a digital platform for traditionally cash transactions like tips and donations. www.tacktip.com
Transfoam, founded by Alec Brewer (Engr ’21), Simonne Guenette (Col ’22) and Kobe Rogers (Col ’21), tackles multiple ends of the plastic problem by upcycling waste styrene to produce PHBs.
VisitAble, founded by Joe Jamison (Col ’19), increases disability etiquette, helps businesses become mobility-friendly and offers a database for mobility-related information. Want to support a local business in Charlottesville? Provide the gift of a VisitAble certification to the business of your choice, giving them a differentiating factor against competitors. www.visitable.org/support-businesses
Worm Works, founded by George Ardura (Engr ’23) and Taylor Kamhong (Col ’21), is a large-scale vermicomposting operation that utilizes biodegradable waste to synthesize high-quality fertilizer.
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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