Throughout January, 20 teams of current students and Oberlin alumni have been vying for funds to launch their business idea through Oberlin’s LaunchU program. At the month’s end, the teams compete before a panel of judges for $50,000 in prize money in a final pitch competition.
LaunchU competitors participated in a three-week accelerator course, which included talks and workshops with alumni and friends of the college, including Jeff Hanson ’80, president of Hanson Advisors Corp. and the brains behind the “Got Milk” campaign; Gary Bolles, founder of eParachute; Terri Browne Kutzen, executive coach and facilitator; and Tim Hurson ’67, author and founder of Mindcamp.
Now in its third year, LaunchU is evolving to draw in a larger network of alumni across generations. This year’s accelerator program includes more alumni participants than ever before, and the makeup of competitors is split fairly evenly between current students and alums.
“We’re working with a very diverse range of new ventures,” says Matt Utterback ‘95, Oberlin’s director of entrepreneurship. “The breadth of passions and expertise represented is pretty amazing for a school of Oberlin’s size. LaunchU provides a platform, rigor, resources, and expertise from the alumni network to help our ventures succeed. Oberlin has been developing entrepreneurs for generations—Alcoa founder and 1885 Oberlin graduate Charles Martin Hall is only one prominent example.”
LaunchU isn’t limited to for-profit ventures. The competition is broken down into separate tracks for startup, social impact, and local impact ventures. “We’re committed to helping Oberlin people take their passions and make an impact on the world. The goal is all-around impact,” Utterback says.
The teams have received coaching since they were admitted to LaunchU in late November. Throughout the accelerator course, they complete assignments critical to the development of their ventures, receive feedback, iterate, and evolve. Participants spent one day of the program touring Lorain County Community College’s Fab Lab, a collaborative workspace with commercially available machines and tools, such as 3D printers, that can be used to conceptualize, design, and fabricate just about anything. Even the alumni who aren’t on campus stay connected through video chats and regular check-ins.
“One of the most important things about LaunchU is that it creates a unique space at Oberlin where entrepreneurs can work alongside like-minded colleagues, whether they’re building a business or non-profit, in a creative, non-judgmental, and forward-thinking atmosphere,” says Ty Diringer ’14, entrepreneurship fellow for LaunchU and Creativity & Leadership at Oberlin. Diringer intimately knows the process behind launching a startup—as a student, he competed in LaunchU twice with two separate ventures.
The first was Kenya Reads, which works to increase access to education for students in the rural slum of Kiamaina, Kenya. “Through LaunchU, we were preparing to break ground on a community center and uniform shop that would help prepare students for success in the classroom. Kenya Reads is going strong and branching out to providing young women with sanitary pads to help them remain in school.”
InTown, his second venture, was a tech startup focused on alumni relations development. The mobile app was intended to help alumni associations better understand and stay in contact with their members through providing the general location information, event preferences, and interpersonal connections of users. The app also helped users connect with friends while traveling. “Following LaunchU—which helped us to realize the potential of the app, flesh out the concept, and turn it into a real business—we started to get real interest from a customer but ultimately shut down. It was a hard lesson, but sometimes you need to learn when not to launch.”
Now that Diringer is working from the other side of the trenches, he has witnessed the individual growth and breakthroughs that take place in reflective team meetings and one-one-one coaching. “We are fortunate to start off with great speakers who come back each year, and many of those speakers have been kind enough to stick around and offer that mentorship. The long-term network—both of fellow LaunchU participants and judges and speakers—that participants develop is incredibly important. We’ve reached the point where we’re beginning to see the LaunchU ethos of disciplined risk and intentional planning ripple into Oberlin’s core culture, which is in turn providing us with strong applicants.”
Utterback says the field of candidates will be judged based on the teams’ readiness and progress. Only those that are ready for launch will compete in the final round on January 31st. “We won’t let anyone proceed if we think they aren’t ready.”
Returning to the competition this year are the creators of LumenEd, a multimedia device that plays educational content for an entire classroom, even those without electricity and Internet access.
Other startup hopefuls include My Chair, a lightweight, portable chair-desk that doubles as a backpack and is geared toward school-age students in rural communities without proper seating infrastructure; Dissectibles, a provider of inexpensive, customizable, and dissectable organ models that can be kept by students throughout their medical school careers; social impact venture Get with the Program, a workbook subscription service that teaches computational thinking; and Drakonus Brewing Company, a local impact venture focused on empowering Mexican brewers by providing equipment, technical knowledge and logistical support to uplift the nascent Mexican craft beer industry.
The pitch competition and alumni showcase begins Friday, January 30, with a keynote talk by Jim Margolis ’78 in Craig Lecture Hall. Margolis is a senior partner with strategic communications firm GMMB. He works at the intersection of politics, advertising, and advocacy on behalf of candidates, foundations, government agencies, and corporate clients. He served as a senior advisor to President Obama in his re-election campaign, and he currently represents more Democratic senators than any other consultant in the nation.
The finalists will pitch to a panel of judges at 10 a.m. Saturday, January 31, in Clonick Hall in the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building. The winners will be announced in a final awards ceremony starting at 4 p.m. in the Alumni Club of the Knowlton Athletics Complex.
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