Charlottesville Tomorrow shares the story of Beanstalk Farms, a Charlottesville-based agricultural technology company that produces scalable, automated and sustainable vertical farms. Its innovative model grows greens such as spinach, kale and arugula in a fog of oxygenated water and nutrients. Read more here.
501 Auctions is a former i.Lab company and Darden alum (MBA '12). The company helps fund the growth of nonprofits with its easy-to-use mobile bidding software and auction management service. Additionally, it automates many of the time-consuming manual tasks associated with holding an event, and opens charities' silent auctions to supporters who otherwise could not participate. Read here for more information on 501 Auctions.
UPDATE 9/27: PAKA raises close to $110,000 with 26 days still left to go!
i.Lab company PAKA is not just any apparel company; they have a sustainable-impact approach dedicated to improving the lives of the Peruvian women weaving some of the softest and warmest material on earth: alpaca wool. Founder Kris Cody brings this unique material to the global market in his first ever crowdfunding campaign, and since the launch of the Kickstarter on Tuesday, September 19, PAKA has raised nearly $60,000- 3x the initial goal of $20K! Read more about Kris Cody and PAKA here.
The public still has 32 days left to back this campaign. Please click here to support PAKA.
In sailing, much like in entrepreneurship, one must have the ability to shift with the winds. As an avid sailor in his native Rosario, Argentina, Maximiliano A. Isa Pavia, a recent Darden School of Business graduate (2017) and founder of BestCredit.com (TuMejorCredito.com.ar), is accustomed to pivoting. A diligent worker bursting with ideas, he recalls the moment – at age 13 – that he realized he might have entrepreneurial inclinations. He needed a replacement piece for his sailboat, but the particular instrument he required was an annoying combination of attributes – simple but expensive. So he decided to make his own, and once he did, the quality construction started attracting attention from his fellow sailors.
Pretty soon, as a young teenager, Maximiliano was selling several of these pieces to members of his sailing community. While his passion for sailing continues to this day, he ultimately went on to work in the finance space – procuring a job in finance consulting after undergrad and eventually pursuing a master’s degree in the subject.
“I worked in finance, but I discovered [along the way] that I like to build things,” he tells me. So he began considering how he could build something in the finance world that would make people’s lives easier, just as he had found a means to do so in sailing. Since his younger-year realization that he enjoyed bringing ideas to fruition, he’d taken his tinkering to new levels and worked on his first startup business in 2012, which had taught him both how challenging and rewarding entrepreneurship could be. Then, in January 2015, he conceived of what is now BestCredit.com, a platform to help Argentinians compare financial programs and credit options.
Art can be a powerful way to bridge many of the gaps that exist in our world – bringing people together across perceived divides among cultures, genders, ages, and many more categories. These days, the same could certainly be said for technology, which connects us in astonishingly speedy ways, rendering time zones and country borders far less significant than they once were.
For Atthar Mirza, a 2017 UVA graduate of the Architecture School and Founder of Exemplum Studios – a production house focused on utilizing cutting-edge technology to tell stories – technology is simply the best mode with which to create change. While he’s always been drawn to 3D modeling, animation, and their ilk, he harbored some concerns that technology’s unstoppable march forward was actually causing us to become more isolated from each other and from the world around us. A thoughtful person with a self-avowed love of talking to people, Mirza figured that these two aspects of his personality – an interest in the humanities and a skill for technology – were bound to always remain distinct and separate. However, as someone skilled at being the bridge between two seemingly disparate groups (“I speak English with you, but I speak Urdu at home,” he tells me, just one example to illustrate the middle ground he’s “always walking” between his parents’ culture and the American culture with which he grew up), it’s no surprise that he’d ultimately find an unexpected, but graceful, way to merge the two.
June West is aware that, when you hear her speak or interact with her, there’s a lot of subtext humming just below the surface of that conversation. Not only are you evaluating her expertise – as someone who’s been in the business since 1972, starting in PR and now running her own consulting business, she’ll inevitably impress in that arena – but as a Darden School of Business Professor of Management Communications, you’re also evaluating Darden with her as a proxy. “The reason companies fail, I think, is a lot about communication,” she tells us, as an opening line. Her communications expertise was proven out right then and there – she certainly knows how to hook a group of hungry-for-knowledge startup entrepreneurs.
In her recent workshop on “Pitching from the Stakeholder Perspective,” West narrowed in on the ways – both overt and otherwise – that founders and startup employees establish their brand in the minds of listeners with each moment of communication. She emphasized how crucial it is to build credibility in every setting, whether you’re giving a formal pitch or answering impromptu questions from your seatmate on an airplane. Ultimately, every question can be distilled down to some notion of “why” – people want to understand why you and why this idea, and they want to be a part of your story.
Over the course of the summer, we’re sitting down with each of the i.Lab ventures to help them share their stories, which we feature each week over on our “Nash News” blog. Recent weeks have allowed us to engage in enlightening conversations with 7 of the companies under our roof this summer. To read more about these founders and their impressive backgrounds and aspirations, explore the pieces linked/excerpted below:
* Rohvi | Rohvi’s co-founders Sara Whiffen and Beth Crooker talked about launching an all-female tech startup and delved into how to bring online shopping principles to the brick-and-mortar retail space:
“There’s something positive about the shopping experience – touch, feel, social. We still see a role for brick and mortar stores,” says Whiffen. “…Amazon was supposed to put all bookstores out of business but now they’re actually building bookstores. We’re [now] seeing there’s something valuable about the tangible experience [even in this digital age].”
*The Kitchen Network | We spoke with The Kitchen Network founder Ian Pasquarelli about how starting a food business can be an accessible dream for folks from all walks of life and how the sharing economy has affected his life and business ambitions:
“But his passion clearly lay not just in nutrition, but in the intersection of the food and business worlds – from a young age, Ian had “always known that [he] wanted to create and do something for [him]self” and found himself continually drawn to many aspects of entrepreneurship. And that’s where the sharing comes in – this fascination with entrepreneurship didn’t stop with just a curiosity for what that path could do for his own life, it actually fueled a deeper mission to help others explore starting their own businesses as well.”
*Brandefy | Brandefy founder Meg Greenhalgh chatted with us about how feedback has been both the impetus of her business idea and the main driver behind shaping and refining it:
“After spending four years in private label consumer packaged goods, she began to realize that sometimes the generic version and the brand version of a product are exactly the same. However, that doesn’t always hold true across the board – she’s also seen instances in which the store version of a product doesn’t even come close to matching up to the brand-name model. With a product like sunscreen, for instance, buying a bad approximation to use during a hot, sunny July vacation is a mistake you certainly don’t want to make.”
*InMEDBio | Ashwinraj Karthikeyan, the founder of InMEDBio, spoke with us about how his innate curiosity and need to ask “why” is helping him make a huge impact:
“As a young, curious kid, his parents ‘used to get slightly irritated… I’d always ask ‘why’ a lot – to the point of exhaustion on my parents’ part.’ As far as entrepreneurs go, this trait seems to come with the territory, and sure enough, Ashwin tells me, he dabbled with business ideas in the years before founding InMEDBio. In keeping with his focus on the future, ‘in high school, I was into robotics’ in addition to exploring numerous other ideas in the consumer products space. While none of these business ideas stuck for too long, he felt continually compelled by the notion of ‘building something on my own and seeing where I could take it.’”
*Gaona Granola | Gaona Granola’s founder Coco Sotelo shared her familial approach to entrepreneurism and how forging a bridge between her native Mexico and second home in Charlottesville gets translated into the food that she bakes:
“The business is deeply rooted in the notion of family – not only is it a labor of love to feed and nourish her family as well as families throughout the Charlottesville community, but Coco actually drew the idea’s inspiration directly from her family, specifically her startup-minded daughter. The eldest Gaona daughter, now 13 years old, possessed an innate entrepreneurial desire from a very young age – perhaps a subconscious legacy from Sotelo’s business-owner parents back in Mexico.”
*Pivot | Co-founders Brig Leland and April Palmer talked about a life in constant motion and how they combined their two passions – fitness and supporting local businesses – into their new venture:
“Essentially, no matter which way you cut it, pivot is inextricable from the idea of motion and movement. And if there were one perfect phrase to sum up Pivot’s energetic Co-Founders April Palmer and Brig Leland, it would be “on the move.” Now, they help local fitness enthusiasts get on the move as well through hundreds of on-demand classes at several local Charlottesville gyms without prepaid or recurring fees.”
*StreamSense Medical | Cheng Yang, founder of StreamSense Medical, spoke with us about how biomarkers are the scientific wave of the future and how his participation in the new i.LabX program has informed and shaped his venture in powerful ways:
“They say that building a successful business takes plenty of ‘blood, sweat, and tears,’ and that sentiment couldn’t be truer for StreamSense Medical CEO Cheng Yang. But, given the nature of his business, he’d probably tack on ‘urine’ to the end of that phrase. Old adages aside, these substances fall under the category of bodily fluids containing important ‘biomarkers,’ which help medical professionals see and monitor potential health issues – and Yang, a recent Chemistry PhD graduate from UVA, sees the potential for big business.”
They say that building a successful business takes plenty of “blood, sweat, and tears,” and that sentiment couldn’t be truer for StreamSense Medical CEO Cheng Yang. But, given the nature of his business, he’d probably tack on “urine” to the end of that phrase. Old adages aside, these substances fall under the category of bodily fluids containing important “biomarkers,” which help medical professionals see and monitor potential health issues – and Yang, a recent Chemistry PhD graduate from UVA, sees the potential for big business.
StreamSense Medical’s first product-in-development, UrineSmart, will soon position his startup squarely in the company of some savvy heavy-hitters who are also exploring the biomarker space. “Google X is working on a product to help [monitor glucose levels] using tears, Harvard is working on a sensor to detect biomarkers via sweat, and we are the urine guys,” Cheng says with a laugh. For those of us less familiar with cutting-edge science and medical developments (myself very much included), UrineSmart will be an at-home urine test device that uses electrochemistry technology developed by Yang and colleagues Long Di (CTO) and Longze Chen (CIO) as a pre-diagnostic tool measuring important biomarkers and bio-indicators. The device will sit directly in a user’s toilet and will take account of humidity, temperature, ph, and other factors to help them monitor important measurements such as present levels of uric acid, a substance closely related to kidney stones.
In these entrepreneurial circles, there’s a tendency, when hearing the term pivot, to immediately think about the word’s business implications. But in layman’s terms, pivot is more commonly used as a synonym for rotate, turn, swivel, or revolve. Essentially, no matter which way you cut it, pivot is inextricable from the idea of motion and movement. And if there were one perfect phrase to sum up Pivot’s energetic Co-Founders April Palmer and Brig Leland, it would be “on the move.” Now, they help local fitness enthusiasts get on the move as well through hundreds of on-demand classes at several local Charlottesville gyms without prepaid or recurring fees.
Fittingly, the duo met about six years ago during an obstacle course race in Boston, and although April was a self-described “bookworm” at the time, her fearless spirit and Brig’s fitness aptitude made for an undeniable connection that quickly led to more activity-focused hangouts. Their first date was a weekend whirlwind of running, surfing (in Hurricane Irene, no less), and bonding over their mutual love of adventure, and the two have been together ever since. They cite fitness, as well as a passion for living a locally-minded lifestyle, as the core components that define their relationship.
When Coco Sotelo pulls up a seat at the table, there’s an instant warmth and familiarity that emanates from her. The mother of three girls (13, 10, and 3 years old) has a tendency to make everyone feel like family, and as she talks about the path that led her to create Gaona Granola, a line of handcrafted, healthy granola cereals, it becomes clear that her friendly demeanor is as effortless as her delicious baking abilities.
The business is deeply rooted in the notion of family – not only is it a labor of love to feed and nourish her family as well as families throughout the Charlottesville community, but Coco actually drew the idea’s inspiration directly from her family, specifically her startup-minded daughter. The eldest Gaona daughter, now 13 years old, possessed an innate entrepreneurial desire from a very young age – perhaps a subconscious legacy from Sotelo’s business-owner parents back in Mexico. She begged her mother for years to open a family cupcake booth at Charlottesville’s local farmer’s market, but Sotelo had a few concerns. Not only was she opposed to starting a business that provided her children – and others – with sugary, low-nutrition snacks, she also worried about fitting in a baking business amidst the family’s already-hectic schedule. “For years, I was telling her no, it’s not our time, we’re too busy,” Sotelo recalls. The three girls, all avid dancers, already spent hours at ballet classes each week, and as they got older, the demands of their dance training became even more intense.
In the early days of Jack Daniels, the company did something revolutionary: it told the truth. Rather than playing in an abstract space, their ads stuck solely to depicting the 5 Ps of Jack – product, process, people, place, and past – through images of Jack Daniels workers doing nothing more and nothing less than the true, sometimes-mundane actions of their job, the very actions that allowed them to ultimately deliver high-quality whiskey to the brand’s notoriously loyal customers. At first glance, it might have seemed that this move would rid the revered brand of some of its hard-won mystique. But, in actuality, it proved successful, cultivating more loyalty than ever. For W.L. Lyons Brown III, a descendant of the family who bought the iconic brand and built the Brown-Forman wine and spirits empire, this is an irreplaceable lesson in storytelling, a skill which he believes should form the core of every entrepreneur’s tool kit. “Telling the truth is much easier than anything else,” and people recognize and connect with authenticity, no matter its form.
While he worked with the family business for many years, this Double Hoo (a graduate of both the University of Virginia and the Darden Graduate School of Business) eventually struck out on his own, building Altamar Brands, his current spirits company, from the ground up. So, during a workshop with the i.Lab last week, he had no trouble identifying with the cohort’s 22 ventures and the eager entrepreneurs who lead them – he’s been in their seats before (quite literally, actually, considering the group gathered in a classroom at Darden, Brown’s old stomping grounds).
Ashwinraj (Ashwin) Karthikeyan, a rising UVA Fourth Year and the CEO and Founder of InMEDBio, has long embraced his penchant for seeking out answers to tough questions, both about the current state of the world and about what the future holds. As a young, curious kid, his parents “used to get slightly irritated… I’d always ask ‘why’ a lot – to the point of exhaustion on my parents’ part.” As far as entrepreneurs go, this trait seems to come with the territory, and sure enough, Ashwin tells me, he dabbled with business ideas in the years before founding InMEDBio.
In keeping with his focus on the future, “in high school, I was into robotics” in addition to exploring numerous other ideas in the consumer products space. While none of these business ideas stuck for too long, he felt continually compelled by the notion of “building something on my own and seeing where I could take it.” But he was in no particular rush to commit to one venture as a career path – after all, his dad had worked for twenty years as a researcher before starting his own business. However, when the idea for InMEDBio and its first product in-development, Phoenix-Aid, began to take shape, Ashwin was finally fully captivated by one timely idea.
Meg Greenhalgh wants your honest opinion. No, really, she does. As a serial entrepreneur and current Darden MBA student, she’s well-versed in the idea that feedback is an essential, though sometimes painful, part of growth and development. The founder of Brandefy – a platform that shows shoppers how store brand and name brand products stack up against each other utilizing honest, straightforward consumer feedback – recounts the moment that she learned to value criticism on a whole new level, just as she was fully discovering the benefits of an effectual frame of mind. “I went to an effectuation workshop with Saras (Sarasvathy) in October or November, and she just tore apart my plan of moving forward. It was the best thing that anyone could do for me. I had all these causal [rather than effectual] plans and I realized they would not have told me anything that I don’t already know.”
Helping others to discover unknown information forms the backbone of what Greenhalgh hopes to accomplish with Brandefy. After spending four years in private label consumer packaged goods, she began to realize that sometimes the generic version and the brand version of a product are exactly the same. However, that doesn’t always hold true across the board – she’s also seen instances in which the store version of a product doesn’t even come close to matching up to the brand-name model. With a product like sunscreen, for instance, buying a bad approximation to use during a hot, sunny July vacation is a mistake you certainly don’t want to make.
When Gina and Bryan Christ moved to Virginia two years ago, the mother and son duo thought that their days of working together were over. Fortunately for the Charlottesville educational community, that notion didn’t last for long, and their venture Rise 4 Real Change, an evolving and adaptive teen mentoring program is now an integral part of the curriculum at Western Albemarle High School (with two more Charlottesville schools to be rolled out this fall). Bryan, a UVA First Year at the time, and Gina, newly enjoying a well-earned schedule sans a regular 9-5, had recently left behind a beloved mentorship program that they had created and fostered in their North Carolina hometown. Although in theory they had now shifted focus to other things, they couldn’t shake the feeling that they were called to do more.
A family vacation in Virginia Beach served as a needed catalyst to reopen the discussion. Gina and Bryan recall a particular moment during that trip as a pivotal point in the creation of their venture – staring out at the vast ocean and watching the waves ripple to the shore, they agreed that their mutual goal to inspire and support kids throughout their academic journeys was far from complete.
Little known fact: despite what cartoons and general lore might have you think, mice actually prefer peanut butter to cheese.
They say that the devil is in the details, but as Alex Cowan’s recent Venture Design workshop proved, the best insights can often be found there as well. The 5x entrepreneur who now spends his time advising and working as an adjunct faculty member at Darden, among other things, spent a morning with the cohort last week walking them through the principles behind his venture design philosophy.
The workshop gave Cowan the opportunity to probe deeper into the details and assumptions inherent in many of the cohort’s business ideas, drawing out the user process and taking the time to dive into the why behind each step. His many years of experience and expertise have affirmed that putting a business through its paces in this way can help entrepreneurs from all genres and industries catch important details they might otherwise miss. These nearly-overlooked small details, in many cases, can ultimately lead to huge paradigm shifts for budding businesses.
But perhaps the biggest potential advantage is the cultivation of empathy, even in the unlikeliest of areas. To prove how empathy can be a truly powerful tool, Cowan shared an example that veered far from the startup sphere – catching mice in an old house. When traditional techniques proved ineffective at capturing these cunning creatures, Cowan actually asked himself the very questions he asks about the potential customer base of new ventures, and he was able to “scurry” a mile in his “target market’s” shoes, discovering, among other things, that peanut butter is actually the preferred nibble of choice for these rodents.
Through utilizing his own principles and adapting his methods accordingly, Cowan was able to solve a mouse problem through unexpected and insightful means. With the help of his workshop, and armed with empathy, the i.Lab’s ventures are even closer to finding their own surprising means for solving customer problems and taming devilish details, both big and small.
If forced to summarize it in terms even a small child could understand, one could say quite simply that Ian Pasquarelli is into food and sharing. The founder of The Kitchen Network has devoted his schooling, work, and personal hobbies to the former field, touching almost all aspects of the food business from nutrition to dietetics to the regulatory process involved in launching a new food product. Similarly, he’s always had a keen passion for giving back to the local communities of which he’s been a part, eagerly sharing his knowledge and ideas with anyone who might benefit from them. These days, The Kitchen Network allows him to seamlessly do both – his online marketplace connects food service professionals in search of professional kitchen space with kitchen owners looking to better utilize their space. With the launch of The Kitchen Network, Pasquarelli has brought the sharing economy to the food business.
But his passion for all things food-related didn’t stem, like others who find themselves in the food biz, from childhood hours spent baking in the kitchen, or from a growing obsession with cooking competition shows. His inspiration came from a much harder-won life turning point. After being diagnosed with a serious illness as a junior in high school, Ian was forced to transform his diet from the sports-playing teenage boy’s typical pile of…whatever’s tasty, to one much more focused on optimizing his nutritional intake. As he went through that process, he began to realize just how challenging it is to achieve that nutritional balance on a daily basis, especially on a limited budget, which is the case for so many families throughout the country.
We’ve heard it in songs, catch phrases, and quoted soundbites from any number of influential figures – the idea that “everything old is new again” is one of those timeless maxims to which we all knowingly nod our heads. Nowhere is this more evident than in the cyclical whims of the fashion industry – one year’s trendy garment is the next year’s back-of-the-closet dust collector (but the next decade’s trendy garment once again).
Even though we’ve all heard the phrase, it’s amazing how many business ideas overlook that proverbial wisdom when constructing a new venture. Rohvi, a service that allows local shoppers to purchase clothing items, wear them for up to six months, and then return them in exchange for 30% of the original purchase price in store credit towards a new item, is certainly not one of those businesses. Instead, Rohvi makes that adage the very core of its value proposition on both a large and small scale. I recently spoke with founders Sara Whiffen and Beth Crooker (their third co-founder Greer Johnson unfortunately couldn’t join us) to hear the big and small ways in which they’re helping the shopping industry to beget new from old.
When viewing the success and scale of huge corporations, it’s easy to forget that many of them can actually trace their origins back to a daring entrepreneurial vision for an overlooked or neglected market, much like the ventures that comprise this year’s cohort. CarMax is one such example of an unexpected idea made good – 25 years ago, it began as a disruptor to the used car buying process with the core idea that providing a superior customer service experience would set them apart. Now, the Fortune 500 Company boasts the title of largest used-car retailer in the United States, but internally it strives to stay true to its scrappy-outlook roots with small, tactical product teams and a continued emphasis on change and improvement.
This attitude and other core tenets of CarMax’s philosophies fall under a larger umbrella called lean – the focus of last week’s incredibly insightful and engaging workshop led by Darden/iLab alum Tom Giedgowd and his colleague Jake Mitchell. According to Giedgowd, lean is a mindset and set of behaviors that help de-risk your time and test your assumptions. Part of cultivating a lean mindset, the CarMax team told us, involves realizing that output does not equal outcomes – ultimately, customer experiences must exist at the intersection of valuable (solves a problem), feasible (able to be created), and usable. Imagine a swiss army knife with endless gadgets and gizmos – just because you decide to add more bells and whistles and spend time designing and crafting these accessories (output) doesn’t mean it will make the knife more useful for the user in the end (outcome).
When Saras Sarasvathy tells a story, the room goes pin-drop silent. As she weaves her tale with big, captivating words and movements, she engages each listener to lean in a little closer, anticipating each new word until the bitter end. The Darden professor and leading scholar (known worldwide for her work on the underlying foundation of high-performance entrepreneurship and her development of the effectuation school of thought) never leaves you with a disappointing ending – her stories frequently conclude with a witty joke, a touching moment, or an astute insight (or if you’re lucky, all of the above). Undoubtedly, she understands humans and the way they tick.
2017 at the iLab has been boldly deemed the “Year of Effectuation,” a nod to the very framework that Saras developed, and the incubator’s programming reflects this focus and common language at every step. But the biggest surprise thus far in the summer’s early weeks is the emphasis – echoed in all of last week’s presentations, from Evan Edwards to Saras herself – on humans and how integral they are to the process of creating and building any new venture.
Describing the origins of his company’s name, kaleo co-founder Evan Edwards – a dedicated UVA alumnus and active mentor to Charlottesville entrepreneurs – shared that the Greek word loosely translates to “a specific purpose or calling.” During the course of his presentation to kick off the iLab’s 2017 summer accelerator, it became clear just how apt the name truly was. Growing up, Edwards and his twin brother (kaleo co-founder) Eric Edwards both grappled with severe allergies that became a burden on their childhoods and a hindrance to traveling freely without fear of a medical issue. Reflecting on that struggle – and the renewed challenges they both now face as parents to their own allergy-suffering children – Edwards expressed a deeply-held belief that his path in life was inevitably linked to helping those like him and his family. Now, their pharmaceutical company, built on a dedication to “innovative solutions for serious and life-threatening medical conditions” (Kaleo Pharma, 2017), represents a hard-won realization of Edwards’ own life’s purpose.
In 1999, as an undergrad engineer at UVA, Edwards took a class titled “Invention Design,” sparking a passion that ultimately guided and fueled his path to becoming an expert in the field of human factors engineering, a subject focused on discovering and optimizing how people interact with technology. He likened the subject to the effectuation process, particularly in its inherent focus on iteration and adaptation – essentially, they both come down to “putting it out there and seeing what sticks.” Without using quite the same terminology back in 2004 during kaleo’s founding, Evan realized that he had undergone a version of the effectuation process while growing the business over the subsequent years.