This spring, the Ventureprise Launch NSF I-Corps customer-discovery program launched its Spring 2019 cohort, celebrating its 100th UNC Charlotte team. The program focuses on assisting students and professors with exploring the commercial possibilities of their research. This semester, 11 teams participated in the program, with assistance from students in the LEADS program, which is offered by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) at UNC Charlotte.
Every semester, Ventureprise welcomes UNC Charlotte students from every college and department across campus to participate in their customer discovery program. Funded by the National Science Foundation, students and professors are given the chance to look at commercial opportunities for their research or business idea. This semester, Ventureprise collaborated with the LEADS program to give CLAS students the opportunity to gain entrepreneurial experience.
“We want CLAS students to understand that they are able to contribute ideas that solve problems in their communities. We want to expose them to entrepreneurship in a way that is engaging and will show them how to use their degrees in a way to capture opportunities,” says Assistant Director of Ventureprise Laura Smailes.
Henry Doss (pictures below with his LEADS students), an adjunct professor and LEADS fellow, encourages his students to take what they have learned in their field, apply it to real world experiences and create a solution. “In my Entrepreneurial Leadership in Action class, students have the extraordinary opportunity to participate in a 'real-world' startup. This provides them with early-stage business and leadership experience they simply would not have otherwise, from leading teams, to hands-on consumer research, to product development, to funding pitches, and everything in between,” says Doss. “Ventureprise adds a critical experiential element to the student’s classroom experience. They learn about the 'business of business' and — even more important — they learn a great deal about themselves as leaders. The LEADS/Ventureprise collaboration is a great example of groups working together to create a breakthrough learning experience for UNC Charlotte students,” adds Doss.
Each team was composed of an entrepreneurial lead (student), one academic lead (faculty member) and one student from the LEADS program. Throughout the program these teams were required to conduct 30+ interviews in six weeks to help them identify a viable market for their research/innovation. The goal of NSF I-Corps is for each team to gain 'Lab to Market' entrepreneurial knowledge and experience.
Additionally, the goal for many students in the LEADS program is to gain the knowledge and tools they need to start their own business. “I gained a better understanding of the business process and strategic ways to find your customer-base,” says Elijah Acosta, a LEADS student.
This semester, the program brought an unlikely pair together, who now consider each other friends and business partners. Cole Nastasi and Hunter Heavener (pictured right pitching at CVC) were both seniors who graduated in May. Nastasi, a history major, and Heavener, a computer science major, have been working on Mello, a platform that facilitates social learning between students by providing exclusive access to a curated selection of course materials and study aids in an innovative way. Through the Ventureprise Launch NSF I-Corps program, the two were paired and have decided to continue working on launching this idea as a startup and recently competed in the Charlotte Venture Challenge (see their presentation here). “I had very limited knowledge of computers and programming, but seeing it happening and having Nadia and Hunter teach me so much about computers, I have a basic understanding of it and I can be that voice for them when explaining things in simpler terms to people who don’t have that knowledge. It actually gives our team an advantage. My naive eye on the subject oddly steers this business where it needs to go,” comments Nastasi. Read more about Hunter and Cole’s story here.
Margaret Kocherga (pictured left), who is seeking her doctoral degree in the Nanoscale Science Ph.D. Program, conducted a total of 70 interviews for her company, Light and Charge Solutions, and found ways to advance not only professionally, but personally. “A personal achievement for me through this program was improving my interpersonal skills for presentations. My biggest takeaway for my company was talking to larger scale companies and talking with CEO’s and discovering there was a need for my innovation in bigger entities,” says Kocherga. Light and Charge Solutions provides electron transport materials for the electronics industry that will enhance operational lifetimes, increase device efficiency, and lower device costs. Kocherga, along with engineering major and Ventureprise Launch NSF I-Corps program graduate Baskar Mitra, participated on the I-Corps panel at this year’s Charlotte Venture Challenge. See Margaret's presentation here.
To learn more about Charlotte Venture Challenge and these entrepreneurs visit here.
The NSF I-Corps program prepares participants to extend their focus beyond the university laboratory, and accelerates the economic and societal benefits of NSF-funded, basic-research projects that are ready to move toward commercialization. “Faculty and student teams are tasked with conducting customer discovery interviews to learn about problems facing industries. These early interviews identify potential market needs for their innovations or result in the need to go back and do more research. Those teams that identify an immediate market need move forward to the NSF I-Corps National program to determine if there is a business model for commercialization. The programs offer a linear path toward moving innovations out of the lab and into the market relatively quickly while providing immediate feedback and new skills to faculty and students,” says Ventureprise Interim Executive Director Devin Collins.
National I-Corps is a six week program that gives student teams across the nation $50,000 in funding their innovative idea. This year, MABE, a microalgae building envelope that can harvest renewable energy to reduce biofuel, will be Ventureprise’s ninth UNC Charlotte team to receive this grant opportunity. This past winter, Next Level STEM, a Ventureprise Launch NSF I-Corps alumni team from CLAS, completed the national cohort and will now be participating in Ventureprise 2.0 this summer to expand their research through pilot studies.
Ventureprise is UNC Charlotte’s innovation and entrepreneurship center serving the UNC Charlotte campus and Charlotte region. As one of the 80 National Science Foundation I-Corps Sites, recipient of a 2016 NC IDEA ecosystem grant and creator of the Charlotte Entrepreneur Growth Report, Ventureprise serves as a center of excellence and evidence based entrepreneurship. By offering three core programs focusing on customer discovery and business model generation, Ventureprise works to provide the resources and expertise for university and community based startups to get to the next level of business formation, scaling or funding.
LEADS is an innovative and transdisciplinary program designed to provide students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with the experimental learning opportunities to enhance personal and professional development and encourage creative problem solving. LEADS students develop into imaginative leaders, articulate communicators, and engaged citizens who are well-prepared for their future careers. Students can participate in the program by registering for the Fall 2019 class; CLAS 3000-02: Entrepreneurial Leadership in Action. For more information visit leads.uncc.edu or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.