Six student teams were chosen last Friday to form the inaugural class of a startup accelerator called Brown Venture Labs. Over the course of the 10-week program, the teams will be provided with mentors, office space and $4,000 of seed funding each to help them develop their nascent businesses. The finalists were competing with 16 other teams for spots in the program.
An extra $1,000 will also be awarded at the conclusion of the program to the team that best establishes itself through channels like social media, said Adrienne Tran ’14, who is running the program. The funding for Venture Labs comes from the Brown Venture Launch Fund, formed last year from a $100,000 anonymous donation intended to foster student entrepreneurship on campus, Tran said.
Among the mentors who will be participating are Hyun Kim ’01, founder of Mama Kim’s; Charlie Kroll ’01, founder of Andera; and Walker Williams ’11, founder of Teespring and co-founder of Jobzle. The teams will meet with mentors at a mentorship speed dating event March 4 and then communicate with them through weekly blog posts, dinners and regular meetings. They will also attend workshops on pitching, prototyping and finance.
This spring marks Venture Labs’ first semester, but if all goes as planned it should return in the fall, said Elizabeth Weber ’14, co-president of the Brown University Entrepreneurship Program. Weber said she hopes Venture Labs will grow to accommodate up to 20 or 25 startups each semester. The entrepreneurship program, which is overseeing Venture Labs, is a student-run umbrella organization for entrepreneurial activity on campus and is supported by an advisory board of faculty and alums.
Tran, who is also the in-reach vice president of the entrepreneurship program, came up with the idea for Venture Labs last summer. She wanted to create a more communal place for startups to develop than the options Brown already offered. “I felt like a lot of people were working in isolation,” she said. “There’s a lot that can be gained by putting those people together in the same physical space.” Tran said she also wanted to make it easier for startups to access the University’s resources by putting their founders together in one place.
Tran worked to set up Venture Labs with Andrew Antar ’12, a Herald editorial cartoonist, who had come up with a similar idea. In the fall semester, they were advised by Alan Harlam, director of social entrepreneurship at the Swearer Center for Public Service, who said he was looking for ways to support recipients of Venture Launch Fund grants.
Harlam said he was “trying to find a structure that could be mostly student-run to support the grantees with mentorship and a strong, peer-learning community.” He added that Venture Labs could play this role, emphasizing that it would create an opportunity for “entrepreneurs to thrive in a community of other entrepreneurs.”
Applications for the program were due Feb. 17. The application asked teams to explain the novelty of their ideas, their plan for connecting with customers and how their companies would be socially and environmentally responsible, among other questions. The teams were also interviewed by a selection committee, composed of members of the entrepreneurship program and its advisory board. Tran said the committee based its final decisions on the teams’ potential to succeed and also their collective personalities, motivations and drive.
The six teams participating in Venture Labs this semester represent a range of different industries and ideas. Fanium, a sports-focused Twitter aggregator run by a team with summer experience at Amazon and Microsoft, aims to provide “the best second screen for watching sporting events,” said CEO Grant Gurtin ’13. Fanium feeds users relevant tweets from players, sports commentators and other viewers as they watch sports games.
Gurtin added that the organization has a working website — which operated during the Super Bowl — and is currently developing an application for mobile devices. Fanium is already backed by two venture companies, Social Leverage and Venture51, and has raised $150,000, Gurtin said.
Another team aims to create a social network for musicians and music fans, through which users could organize into bands, discuss music and buy and sell songs. The team calls its project Hearo.fm and said it is “90 percent complete,” according to Antar, one of its co-founders. The team also has plans to provide a ticketing service for concert venues and is creating a system it calls Hearo Causes that would allow bands to allocate a portion of their profits to charities. Antar said the team hopes to launch its site in the next couple of weeks.
A third team is working on a children’s watch that would combat obesity by incentivizing exercise. The watch, called Exersaur, would feature a dinosaur on its face that would light up as a child exercises, said Shawn Medford ’12, co-founder of Exersaur. It could then be connected to a computer, so that on the Exersaur website, children would be able to spend exercise points on growing and personalizing their dinosaur avatar. Medford characterized the project as part Neopets, part Pokemon. The team has yet to develop a prototype of the watch.
Other finalists include SquareQuote, Bodyrox and NBA Math Hoops, Tran said.