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Students pitch startup venture ideas to Silicon Valley companies

Entrepreneurship Program launches new ‘Accelerator’ trip to Silicon Valley to showcase talent

After Gavrav Nakhare ’15 and his family moved several years ago, it took almost half a year for them to figure out what appliances they would purchase for their new kitchen.

“I found it really funny because there are these professional doctors who took five months to choose a fridge,” he said, referring to his parents. “I couldn’t believe how hard it was.”

Nakhare forgot about the experience until he met Will Hewson ’15 in his CHIN 0100: “Basic Chinese” class. Hewson told Nakhare he wanted to start a company that would make it easier for people to purchase appliances online. Together with Daniel Hackney ’13, they founded durgood, one of six student startups to travel to Silicon Valley on the Brown Entrepreneurship Program’s first ever West Coast Accelerator trip.

From Jan. 13 through Jan. 18, the 10 students toured the Silicon Valley and met with venture capitalists, lawyers and Brown alums who work for companies like Facebook and Google.

The trip was organized by Brown Venture Labs, one of two divisions of the Brown Entrepreneurship Program. Founded last year, Venture Labs looks for promising student startup groups and helps connect them with resources such as investors and partnerships.

“Right now we have two subsets (to the Program),” said Adrienne Tran ’14, founder and managing director of Brown Venture Lab. The other branch of the program is the Idea Lab. “We have the Idea Lab, for people who are in the ‘idea’ stage or who don’t quite know what type of venture they’d like to work on,” he added. “Brown Venture Labs is more like an in-depth dive, taking five companies and accelerating them to the next level.”

The West Coast Accelerator trip offers an additional opportunity “for the students who are farthest along and have garnered the most resources from Silicon Valley,” said Elizabeth Weber ’14, former president of the Entrepreneurship Program.

The trip started out with an orientation and meet-and-greet at the office of Derek Schueren’s ’98 company, Recommind. From there, the students got a crash course in startup development from various groups, many of which were started or staffed by Brown alums. Throughout the trip, mentors and Brown alums shared stories about their experiences in Silicon Valley and offered advice to the students. The students also visited law firms, where they learned about “the legal aspect of startups,” Nakhare said, “which we as students usually don’t think about.”

“It was completely filled from morning to evening with pretty much everything a startup needed,” he said.

The students went to the Google campus, as well as to Facebook’s headquarters, where they spoke with CFO of Facebook, Inc., David Ebersman ’91.

“He came and chatted with us for an hour,” Nakhare said. “It was amazing what he had to say about how Facebook transformed from a small startup to one of the biggest companies out there.”

Josh Ezickson ’15, president of the Brown Entrepreneurship Program for the upcoming year, said he was “thrilled” with the quality of visiting lecturers and the “extensive” nature of the network of Brown alums in Silicon Valley.

At the end of the program, the student teams went to Mohr Davidow Ventures, a venture capitalist firm, where they pitched their startups to a panel of judges who gave them feedback on their presentation and decided which of the six ventures would be most viable as companies.

“The judges couldn’t come to a unanimous (decision on one) team that was the best,” said Alon Sacks ’15, president of Brown Idea Labs for the upcoming year.  They ultimately recognized three of the six teams — Consignd, gsuccess and LoveGov — as “fundable companies,” he said. LoveGov is a startup social network designed to connect students to information about federal and local politics, Consignd is a web platform for online consignment and Gsuccess is a mobile app that helps students in China study for standardized exams.

Nakhare said durgood is still in the planning phase of operations and that their goals for the trip were less about developing funding sources than were those of the other groups, including the three recognized teams of the pitch contest.

The founders of durgood are planning to search for funding in the upcoming months, but they are currently still finalizing a “viable product,” Nakhare said. “It was as great as it could be for where we are.”

Several of the teams stayed in Silicon Valley to continue pitching to other venture capital firms, Weber said.

The event’s planners said the experience of visiting the West Coast will help the teams further develop their ventures, and they plan to run another similar trip next year.

“There’s just this sort of feel in the Bay Area in Silicon Valley … this very startup-y feel,” Ezickson said. “Venture capitalists actually ended up laughing at us because we were dressed in suits, and it’s the first time they were pitched to in suits in a long time,” he added.

“I know a lot of teams really embraced that culture, that laid-back and really friendly culture that Silicon Valley had. They can really see themselves moving back out there once they have their companies more established,” Ezickson said.

Though the Providence community has criticized the program’s search for resources outside the city, Weber said she hopes the program will soon find more resources closer to home.

“We were delivering that ‘people capital’ and those resources and connections that could not currently be made in Providence,” Weber said.

At the end of the trip, several of the teams expressed interest in returning to the “laidback and really friendly culture” of the Silicon Valley once their companies are fully formed, Ezickson said.



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