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Breakthrough-Lab venture program provides mentorship, community, autonomy to student entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurship program helps produce 13 student ventures

<p>Sponsored by the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, B-Lab supports each student with a $4,000 stipend, a co-working space and a network of industry-specific mentors from all over the world to assist with ventures.</p><p>Courtesy of Kevin Nguyen</p>

Sponsored by the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, B-Lab supports each student with a $4,000 stipend, a co-working space and a network of industry-specific mentors from all over the world to assist with ventures.

Courtesy of Kevin Nguyen

When David Chu ’24, Jialing Zhou ’24, Alyssa Loo ’24, Qinan Yu ’24 and Adrien Chavarot ’25  competed last January in their first hackathon — Hack@Brown — they did not expect much to come from it. 

“When we heard the news that we won the first place prize, we were ecstatic,” Zhou said. 

In light of the hackathon’s theme, sustainability, they created a browser extension that provides users with secondhand clothing alternatives to existing fashion sites. The group worked on this product — now called Sift — over the summer at Breakthrough Lab, an eight-week summer accelerator at the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship for Brown and Rhode Island School of Design students developing high-impact ventures.

Last month, students from 13 venture groups presented a culmination of their summer work at B-Lab, which educates student entrepreneurs and fosters development of new ventures aimed to create “scalable solutions to serious problems,” according to its website.

Sponsored by the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, B-Lab supports each student with a $4,000 stipend, a coworking space and a network of industry-specific mentors from all over the world to assist with ventures. B-Lab also hosts business workshops, pitch events and seminars led by industry experts, according to Jason Harry, professor of the practice in engineering, technology and entrepreneurship and former director of B-Lab for the past 7 years.

Mentors’ assistance ranges from giving students pitch feedback to discussing business model strategies, Harry said. 

Hailey Chen ’24, Cindy Zheng ’24 and Sophia Ghauri ’24 are co-founders of Codified Health, a healthcare startup supported by B-Lab that aims to reduce medical billing inefficiencies. 

“After a visit to a doctor, the doctor has to translate that into codes to represent diagnoses, case complexity and billing” so that the “company knows how much to reimburse the doctors for,” Zheng said.

Chen was motivated to join the team after watching her father, a general practitioner, struggle with this problem. “He could see all the patients he wanted, (but) he simply was not making ends meet because he was not getting paid for services.” 

With over 10,000 medical codes to record and up to 80% of claims rejected by insurance companies, this process can be tiresome, Chen added. Codified Health’s goal is to develop AI-driven software to read through doctor’s notes and automatically produce the necessary medical codes. 

The Codified Health team expressed strong appreciation for the community aspect of B-Lab. They noted that the designated time they had to work together strengthened team bonds, and that by working alongside other venture teams, they were able to exchange lessons about early-stage startup creation. 

For Zhou, a highlight of the program was presenting his first pitch at Slater Sushi Night, a B-Lab-sponsored pitch event. “I remember people coming up to talk to me and asking … ‘Can I work on this project?’” he said. “And that was one of the first times we ever felt this excitement because we were getting some validation.”

B-Lab’s mentorship has also expanded to incorporate entrepreneurs in residence  — experienced entrepreneurs that work at the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and provide sector-specific guidance to a handful of ventures. B-Lab highlights an opportunity for students to develop professionally, said Harry.

“The aim of B-lab is fundamentally educational,” Harry said. “We celebrate the efforts of the students that showcase. … We're not pitting one venture against another, and we're not voting on which one is the best.” 

Harry added that B-Lab gives students the opportunity to creatively think about solutions for social good. “How many opportunities do you have in college to think of something that, if it could come to pass, would change the world in some fashion?” he said. 

“Both Jialing Zhou and I are fairly technical, but we've learned so much from just working on this process for the sake of a goal,” Chen said. “And it’s a lot more fun because it gives a higher purpose while you're learning,”

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