LaunchU has awarded $46,500 in startup funding to budding Oberlin entrepreneurs, and has awarded first place to a faculty team for the first time in the competition’s seven-year history.
Housed under the Center for Innovation and Impact, the LaunchU Bootcamp and Pitch Competition awards startup funding to entrepreneurs at all stages of the venture process—from preliminary ideas to those with proof of concept and initial revenue streams. The program is free to all accepted; current students, alumni, faculty, staff, and parents of Oberlin students are all eligible to participate.
The competition process spans fall to spring and integrates mentoring support from Oberlin alumni and parents, as well as professional development sessions led by startup professionals. After being evaluated by a panel of alumni judges, winning pitches are awarded funding determined by their future needs and ability to move forward with their projects.
1step2life, a research team lead by Nancy Darling that is developing app-based technology to help adolescents manage chronic pain, was awarded first place in this year’s competition. 1step2life was awarded $20,000 and will use the funding to transform the current web-based app into an app that can be purchased and subscribed to from the iTunes App Store.
Psychology major Max Kramer ’20, who competed on the 1step2life team, says that LaunchU allowed him to apply his academic studies to an entrepreneurial undertaking. “Our mentor meetings were a fantastic resource to learn how to take our scientific background and apply it to the world of business,” he says. “The lessons in pitching, marketing, and networking helped us transition from a lab into a business, and they provided new contacts that have since joined the project.”
Second-place winner Alex Tavares ’11 was awarded $15,000 for his project, The Read Read, the first device that allows children and adults with visual impairments and blindness to independently learn and practice phonics and braille. “It was an absolute pleasure to participate in LaunchU,” Tavares says. “I was able to benefit from the guidance and anecdotes of real-life entrepreneurs, who shared their successes and more importantly, their missteps.”
Third-place winner and environmental studies graduate Jonathan Kaufman ’11 was awarded $5,000 to expand his startup, Full Circle Solutions. Founded in 2018, Full Circle Solutions aims to divert organic waste from Amsterdam’s waste incineration process. Kaufman says that by processing organic waste with insect larvae, its value can be increased up to tenfold.
“I heard about LaunchU from an Oberlin friend and it seemed like a great way to push my business forward,” Kaufman says. “My goal is to leverage the funds awarded to me to create a prototype of my vision and a revenue stream that will allow me to scale.” Long-term, Kaufman plans to develop partnerships with waste haulers and producers in Amsterdam and calibrate the prototype to an industrial scale.
Director of Entrepreneurship Bara Watts says that, for many entrepreneurs in the nascent stages of unproven ventures, they are often forced to draw from their own monetary resources. “For many,” she says, “this is the difference between being able to launch or shelving the idea and moving on.”
LaunchU not only makes professional development and funding accessible to entrepreneurs, but it taps into the Oberlin ethos of creating positive impacts in the world. Past LaunchU winners include Get With the Program, a nonprofit promoting STEM education for preschool through 12th-grade students, and Salt Point Seaweed, a company devoted to reducing the high carbon footprint of seaweed imports by sustainably sourcing seaweed.
“If you want to change the world, you need more than knowledge,” Watts says. “You need to know how to activate that knowledge and execute for success. Those who employ this skill set in launching a venture have the potential of creating a new force in the world, providing services and products delivered through job creation and support for others.”
Now in its seventh year, LaunchU continues to facilitate opportunities for learning and professional growth with the support of the greater Oberlin College community. This year’s competition marked the second year of the Entrepreneurship Mentorship program, in which 14 volunteer alumni and Oberlin parents shared their professional prowess with competitors.
“These mentors provide real-world insights and knowledge that is very hard to get otherwise,” Watts says. “Having professionals dedicate their time at no cost to help a founder realize their dream is a tremendous resource.”
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