Mobile-app developers, fashion designers, engineers and Ph.D. candidates alike came together to participate in the University’s inaugural Summer B-Lab — known in full as the Breakthrough Lab — held at the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts June 8–July 31. The program gave 17 teams, a total of 39 students, the opportunity to develop their startup ideas into tangible business models.
Over 100 students from about 50 venture teams applied to participate in B-Lab, but space considerations restricted the opportunity to 17 ventures, said William Foulkes, B-Lab program organizer. Teams were chosen based on their previous work on the proposed venture, potential for success and commitment to the program, he added.
“We were delighted by the real, energetic demand that there is among the Brown population for a program like this,” he said.
B-Lab allocated each team resources for determining the venture’s feasibility, building participants confidence in entrepreneurship through a “learn-by-doing approach,” Foulkes said.
“We pushed the participants to reach a very informed conclusion about the viability of their venture by the end of the eight weeks,” he said, adding that they encouraged “an evidence-based explanation about their opportunities with a clear decision of whether they should pursue them” once the program came to a close.
One of the main goals of the program was to provide mentorship to the student entrepreneurs, Foulkes said. Mentors included business leaders from around Rhode Island, along with Brown faculty and alums. Brown faculty members also gave weekly lectures on topics such as failure, what a venture capitalist looks for in a start-up and how to finance a venture.
The program aimed to encapsulate ventures in a diverse range of fields, Foulkes said. Selected start-ups included a high-end fashion brand that encourages collaboration between amateur and professional designers and a company that produces toy dolls with a range of skin colors and hairstyles, as well as an app to detect Vitamin D levels and deficiencies in a person’s body.
Matt Cooper ’18 used his time at B-Lab to develop Chorus, an app that allows users to produce music in collaboration with people in surrounding areas. Users can create a beat or melody and post it to Chorus, allowing others to listen and add to the track, Cooper said.
“How (B-Lab) differed from most startup accelerators is most professional accelerators are really focused on taking ventures and getting them to the point where they can get outside funding,” Cooper said. “B-Lab was much more about the learning experience. The end goal was to do a bunch of research and decide if the venture was worth going for afterwards.”
B-Lab’s resources allowed the team to develop Chorus in a more professional setting, Cooper said, adding that he and his partners “felt like (they) were an actual business” with the office space and materials that were provided. Also integral to the program were the mentors that held office hours to offer start-up advice, Cooper said.
Though each team was focused on their own venture, collaboration among groups was common, Cooper said. The Chorus team shared codes and ideas with another music app, Opus, he added.
ForwardGen, a start-up that aims to provide resources to first-generation students at universities across the United States, used B-Lab to conduct further outreach, said Merone Tadesse ’16. Tadesse had no previous experience in entrepreneurship or social innovation before participating in the program, she added.
“(B-Lab) was about learning a lot ... about how to talk about (your idea), how to think about it, and how to make it grow into sustainable and real, not just something your friends thought of in your dorm room,” she said.
Tadesse also emphasized the ability to connect with other teams despite have ventures in different fields. The teams’ physical workspaces were in close proximity with each other, allowing students to “bounce ideas” off each other easily, she said.
The ventures “could be totally different, but at the same time, there was just so much similarity in the way we’re thinking and worrying about the same things that it was just really nice to have that as an environment,” she said.
At the end of the program, each team was asked to give a three-minute presentation detailing its progress throughout B-Lab and any future plans for the group. While most teams said they were able to move forward with their start-ups, others concluded that their venture would not be feasible because of a lack of available technology or consumer market.
Eva Junquera ’17, who was part of the Leading Edge venture team, worked on developing a portable hydropower machine. The team’s goal was to create and market a smaller version of a machine that uses the flow of water to create electricity — a machine originally developed by Brown professors. At the end of B-Lab, Leading Edge discovered that the market for a compact hydropower machine was nearly nonexistent, and the product would not be successful if sold in stores.
“Going into B-Lab we had an idea that there would definitely be a market,” Junquera said. “We started different workshops with mentors, and one was a customer research workshop. After going to that, we started going to different shops to see if we could talk to customers and managers to see if it had a market.”
After listening to consumer feedback, the team concluded that the portable hydropower machine would not be marketable, but its full-size counterpart would, Junquera said. The original Leading Edge device was designed to create a large-scale impact that a compact device would not be able to produce, she added.