Students and recent graduates looking to address problems — from simplifying the process of applying for citizenship to improving the modern sticky bra — found homes for their entrepreneurial ventures in the University’s Breakthrough Lab this summer.
B-Lab, part of the Jonathan M. Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, is an eight-week accelerator program that supports entrepreneurial ventures. Representatives from 12 of the 13 ventures in last summer’s cohort pitched their projects at a showcase Thursday evening.
“There’s a difference between studying entrepreneurship and doing it,” said Jason Harry, the director of Breakthrough Lab and professor of the practice of engineering, in an interview with The Herald. “One of the goals for B-Lab is to provide a real world opportunity … to do real entrepreneurship.”
Among the projects pitched at the showcase was Koi Prosthetics, which aims to provide affordable prosthetics to amputees in developing countries; Dialogue-Africa, a virtual learning platform for African languages and Reliabra, which has developed sticky bras with removable and replaceable adhesives.
“The showcase is really an opportunity to kind of experience the big time and to be able to present to a room with a couple of hundred people in it,” Harry said. It is also “an opportunity to practice how to tell a venture story,” he added.
In remarks at the showcase, President Christina Paxson P’19 emphasized the Nelson Center’s role in enhancing entrepreneurship at the University.
“What the Nelson Center is doing is it’s taking this amazing entrepreneurial ecosystem, and it’s putting it on steroids and bringing it together … with a level of professionalism that we haven’t had in the past,” Paxson said.
This year’s B-Lab cohort, the fourth since the program’s inaugural class in 2015, primarily featured Brown current students or recent alums, though one student from the Rochester Institute of Technology along with one student and one alum from the Rhode Island School of Design also took part.
Matt Bruinooge ’21 and Diane Mutako ’20 were part of a team that worked through B-Lab to develop Formally, a software that aims to simplify the process of filling out forms for asylum, citizenship and visas.
At B-Lab, “we finished the first prototype … for the first form completely, and we got to test it with other people in B-Lab and see what they thought and make some improvements on that,” Mutako said. “But I think the most valuable part were the connections that we made through B-Lab.”
Without the resources provided by the University through B-Lab, which include a $4,000 stipend, “I would probably be working at an internship somewhere in some company,” Bruinooge said. “Instead I ended up doing this really socially impactful thing.”
Other projects included Persona, which “aims to reduce internet friction by allowing users to create accounts, verify passwords and verify that they’re human with a single click,” Eric Dellavalle ’21 said in his pitch at the showcase.
“We made a lot of progress, a lot of good time to just code and put in work,” Dellavalle said in an interview with The Herald. “But I think more important than that was … mentorship. We got paired with … Scott Meyer ’91 who had worked in a ton of similar businesses and also at Brown, and so his mentorship was just invaluable.”
Pavlo Lyalyutskyy ’20 worked to develop Intellibell, a software for supermarket produce management, this summer. “In B-Lab we really tried to figure out our mission for existence,” Lyalyutskyy said. The team developed a long-term vision “to provide artificial intelligence tools to markets that don’t really have it or would benefit from it,” starting with supermarkets.
This summer and in past years, groups have worked out of the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts. Assuming the Nelson Center’s new space at 249 Thayer Street is ready on time, B-Lab will operate there next summer, Harry said.
“During the summer … the space will be largely dedicated to B-Lab,” he said. “The whole space is going to be beautifully designed around student venturing.”
Last week’s showcase was “a culmination of a huge amount of effort,” Harry said. It took place in a packed MacMillan Starr Auditorium.
“I really do believe that it’s interesting to other people because it’s a glimpse of the future,” Harry said. The ideas presented may not always come to fruition, “but it’s fun to see the future, you know, it really is.”