It’s a steamy Friday afternoon in early June, and the window air conditioner in the third-floor conference room in Bartlett Hall is working furiously to provide relief to the handful of students gathered around a large meeting table. The setting is unmistakably a university classroom in summer, but once Birton Cowden begins to speak, it becomes immediately clear that this is anything but a typical college course. “This is a no-B.S. space,” begins Cowden, the former* Berthiaume Center Director of New Ventures. “If something is sh*tty, we want to talk about it.”
Cowden explains that over the next eight weeks, he hopes to see the gathered students coalescing into a team of peer advisors who will help one another work through the creative challenges they will soon be facing. That requires providing honest feedback, he says. “I’m not giving out grades,” he adds. “My job is to help you get past hurdles.” Specifically, Cowden and the brain trust of UMass faculty, mentors, industry experts, and local business leaders will be helping these student entrepreneurs develop and refine the business concepts that brought them here. Each of the five had an idea strong enough to earn a place at the table through a competitive application process, and each will receive a $5,000 stipend to cover expenses and allow them to focus full time on their ventures.
Here at the Summer Accelerator, launched in 2017, the goal is to give UMass students the experience of turning a promising concept or technology into a viable business worthy of investment. To do that, the school provides a workspace, dedicated mentors, themed meetings three days a week, guest speakers, industry contacts—and a group of supportive peers.
Don’t be fooled by the classroom setting. The Accelerator’s purpose is to help students achieve success in the outside world. And it already has. The water purifying company Aclarity, owned and operated by 2017 Accelerator alums Julie Bliss Mullen and Barrett Mully, has gone on to receive significant financial backing and grants. That same year, Aleric Heck, then a junior, refined his video-based marketing company, AdOutreach, a business that continues to make money and grow.
To underscore its real-world goals, the Summer Accelerator culminates in a final public pitch where students share their stories with a room full of potential investors. It’s the kind of opportunity that hungry entrepreneurs live for—but one that requires preparation. “We’re here to help,” says Cowden, wrapping up. “And we’re here to actually get somewhere.”
The five student ventures selected for the Accelerator this summer included businesses focused on medical-grade foot care, biomedical testing, vacation savings accounts and video analytics for retail stores. Exploring how each venture evolved over the eight weeks provides a revealing look at the role of the Summer Accelerator, and how this intensive approach to entrepreneurial thinking puts ideas — and students — to the test.
*Editor’s Note: In the summer of 2018, Birton Cowden left the University of Massachusetts for a tenure-track position at Kennesaw State University. The Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship named Gregory S. Thomas as the Executive Director and Stephen Brand as the Associate Director. Read more about the new Berthiaume Center leadership.
Finding Solid Footing
The venture: FootCare by Nurses, LLC, medical-grade foot care and related preventive services
The entrepreneur: Kate Clayton-Jones, RN, PhD candidate, nursing
Unlike the other four Accelerator participants, Kate Clayton-Jones had more than just a concept going into the program. Her FootCare by Nurses business, which grew out of her PhD dissertation work, already had customers and was bringing in revenue, grossing $120,000 last year. The business model—board certified foot care nurses travel to homes, clinics and senior centers to provide foot-care services and treatment—appeared solid. The challenge for Clayton-Jones was managing the company’s growth and scaling it to the next level.
“We ran into staffing issues, cash flow issues, all the things that every business runs into moving from concept to reality,” she told her peers at the Accelerator’s first weekly check in. “It’s almost like we’ve become a new start up. We’re on-ramping to a different level of doing business.”
Among the growing pains Clayton-Jones hoped the Accelerator would help her resolve were how to hire, train, and retain staff; how to manage her cash flow; how to scale the business; and how she could balance her responsibilities as the business manager with her desire to continue working with patients. She acknowledged that she now spends too much time in the field. “I am still being the doer,” she reported. “Because it’s hard for me not to be.”
Over the next seven weeks, Clayton-Jones took full advantage of the various experts and consultants the program made available. One helped her with her hiring strategy and job postings; another showed her how to build a spreadsheet to organize hiring nurses to patient load; another offered suggestions for revamping her revenue model and improving her margins. “What the Accelerator did for me was surround me with a bunch of people who were saying, ‘You can do this. This is how you can do the marketing, and these are the people that might be able to help you, and this is the kind of investment you would be looking for,’” she said. “I came into the Accelerator saying FootCare by Nurses is perfectly capable of becoming a national company, and through the Accelerator I learned what it would actually take to be a national company.”
Those lessons are already paying off. Early in the summer, Clayton-Jones received some investment funding that helped her get a line of credit, which in turn eased her cash flow. Thanks to improvements in her job listings, she is getting stronger applicants for nursing positions and has hired several, bringing the total to six, and has also added a new administrator. The company has signed key contracts with regional aging groups, and is on track to offer its services throughout the state in three to four years. Most telling, the customer base has more than doubled over last year, and the company is now on track to bring in $250,000 in revenue this year.
“I had an idea and was doing, but didn’t really know how to play the game,” Clayton-Jones acknowledges. “Being able to talk to the experts, who came through the Accelerator this summer, was an amazing and invaluable experience. FootCare by Nurses would not be where we are now without that help.”
From Patch to Polymer Chip
The venture: e-Biologics, sensor technology for health and science applications
The entrepreneur: Alexander Smith, PhD candidate, mechanical engineering
Alexander Smith came into the Summer Accelerator program with a product idea that sounded like science fiction: a diagnostic patch worn on the skin that uses protein nanowire technology, developed by his research partners at UMass, to analyze biomarkers in sweat and detect health problems, then send alerts to an app to your phone. The concept was so promising that it won the top prize at the 2018 Innovation Challenge Final, an honor that earned his company, e-Biologics, $30,000 in seed money, and gave Smith an automatic berth into the Summer Accelerator.
At the start of the summer program, Smith wanted to focus on determining who his customer was going to be. Would e-Biologics be making patches and selling them to health care providers and retail stores, or licensing the technology to other companies? To help him answer that, he wanted to identify and develop a “minimum viable product”; in short, he needed to determine the simplest way to package the technology for the easiest initial sale. “We have a lab version of our technology, a benchtop science version in an academic lab setting, and we need to package it into a device that can be commercially valuable,” he explained. “That’s the main technical development; taking the lab technology and turning it into a viable product that can produce value.”
But over the course of the Accelerator program, as he talked to business mentors and industry experts, a clearer picture of the business landscape began to emerge. He discovered that manufacturing and marketing the transmitting sensor patch would require expertise and resources that his group simply didn’t have. By week six of the program, he had made “a massive pivot.” “I ended up pitching a polymer microchip, a sensor that gets integrated into other devices,” he says. “So instead of an actual device, I’m now pitching just the sensor,” one that, for example, doesn’t overheat or break like glass pH sensors now on the market. “That makes it a lot simpler on the product side.” He still is weighing whether to manufacture the chips or license the technology to another company to make.
Along with the specific insights Smith gained into his particular business, the Accelerator also provided him with a broader benefit. “I felt like I finally learned what it’s like to start an actual company,” he says. “I was faced with the reality of entrepreneurship, that sometimes there are hurdles that you need to overcome, and that’s going to totally change your strategy. It put me into the real world and made me think of a concept that I could actually pull off, and successfully build and commercialize. The process felt like real life.”
A New Vision for Retail
The venture: Nupek, a real-time video analytics platform for retail stores
The entrepreneur: Sarim Ahmed, undergraduate, computer science
Sarim Ahmed’s business concept was to provide brick-and-mortar retail stores with the kind of customer information that online retailers take for granted: how many people are shopping at any time, what products interest them, how long they stay, and so on. Software developed by his venture, Nupek, would monitor the video feed from a store’s security cameras and provide detailed analytics to store owners about customer traffic, staffing needs, and potentially much more.
Or at least that was the idea going into the Summer Accelerator.
“After talking with investors and industry professionals, we decided that it’s better for us to make a standardized camera of our own,” Ahmed said. “And that’s what we developed halfway through the summer. We developed a small camera device that can process all this data and send it straight to a dashboard, where a retail store owner can view it.” The system would be more accurate than the current infrared customer-counting devices now in place, Ahmed noted, and could track the age, demographics, and even the emotions of customers. When combined with other devices, the system could identify the most popular displays in a store, chart customer movement patterns, or signal if a customer might actually be a shoplifter.
As innovative as Ahmed’s product seemed to be, entrepreneurial advisor Paul Silva, serving as a guest instructor during week six, was concerned about retailer interest in customer counting. “How do you know that this is a hair-on-fire problem?” he asked, referring to an issue so important that potential customers are already spending time and money trying to solve it. Ahmed said that he had talked to 10 local businesses, “and so far, they’ve all said it would be useful to them.” But how interested? Silva pressed. “You could build the perfect people counter, but if it turns out they are never going to buy it, you’ll be pretty frustrated.”
Ahmed said he would continue seeking input from retailers and other potential customers, a strategy that he also cited in his final pitch to investors. “What we need at this point is to learn more about what the issues are in retail,” Ahmed explained. “Retail is a complex industry. We are really at the beginning of what’s possible, and we are learning more about how we can help.”
The Summer Accelerator format, with its guidance from mentors and expectations of progress, kept that learning process on track, Ahmed said. “They push you to do or create something, and that’s something that you don’t find when you are working on your own startup,” he said. “You don’t have someone sitting there saying, ‘Okay, what’s next?’ That pressure really helped us grow quickly and efficiently. And the Summer Accelerator also helped us talk to customers. We made a lot of connections through the team at the Berthiaume Center, so we were able to talk to a lot of potential customers about what they would eventually want in their store.”
Looking Beyond Cancer
The venture: KINASE, a biomarker detection platform
The entrepreneur: Nariman Banaei, PhD candidate, biomedical engineering
If a cure for cancer is the Holy Grail of biomedical research, a simple and inexpensive test that catches the disease in its earliest stages would also seem worthy of professional acclaim. Nariman Banaei and his UMass research partners at KINASE had developed exactly that—a technique that can identify the early onset of various cancers by analyzing the protein biomarkers in a small sample of blood, sweat or saliva. Given the strength of the research and the potential benefits to society, the business came in third at the 2018 Innovation Challenge Final, earning $15,000 in seed money.
But transforming research discoveries, even the most promising, into a viable business is no simple matter, as Banaei discovered during his time in the Summer Accelerator. “Are you the company that makes these tests and sells directly to the doctors?” Cowden asked at the first weekly meeting. “Or do you sell to a medical supplier and they go to the doctors? Or do you basically license your technology to another entity that worries about that stuff? Because for three scientists and an MBA, that’s a lot to build from scratch.”
Over the next seven weeks, through discussions with his mentor and industry experts, Banaei would come to see that launching a cancer-testing company—with its attendant research, manufacturing, marketing, and distribution functions—was indeed too much for his team to take on. Coupled with what he discovered about the competition in the marketplace and the regulatory hurdles medical companies face, Banaei decided to pivot: KINASE would focus its efforts on biomarker detection kits, by either licensing its technology to a biomedical manufacturer or by making its own test kits and selling them to researchers in various industries.
“Our technology is able to detect a very wide range of protein biomarkers,” Banaei explained. “Cancer detection can be one of our goals, but we can make our market much bigger by not limiting ourselves.” Early negotiations with possible manufacturing partners have been promising, he added.
Going from the science lab to the world of entrepreneurs was eye opening for Banaei, he says, but the Accelerator taught him some valuable lessons. “I realized that the goal of research and study cannot necessarily be the same as the goal of business and market,” he said at his final pitch. Being pushed to talk to experts outside of the university setting helped him understand the realities of the business world and learn its vocabulary. “Most of us students, we know about research, but we don’t know that much about the technical aspects and language of the industry,” he said. “Meeting people who are experts in the industry and talking with them is an important step to know how to fit your idea into the real world.”
Banking on Vacations
The venture: TernBooking, a vacation planning and saving service
The entrepreneur: Austin Rohlfing, 2018 graduate, mathematics
If you owned a company, what would you think of offering your employees an online service that lets them plan a trip and put aside some money from each paycheck—with a percentage matched by your company and the host service—to save up for it? In short, it would be like a 401k for vacations, a tool for encouraging employees to take time off (which has been shown to have numerous health and productivity benefits) while improving workplace morale, staff retention and company goodwill.
Over the course of the Summer Accelerator, Austin Rohlfing, founder of TernBooking, discovered that some of you would love that idea, and some of you would not. “To be honest, there have been a lot of mixed reviews,” he said. Among the many business experts he talked to, opinions were divided about the prospects for the venture, which would make money through fees, commissions and interest on the savings, although Austin notes that two other companies are already offering similar services. “Some people said, ‘I totally get this, this would be awesome, I would use this as an employer,’” he said. “And there were some who struggled to see the value it brings.”
That kind of frank feedback, however, is exactly what Rohlfing wanted to hear, and what he found most helpful about the Summer Accelerator. “When you are working with the same people all the time, it’s good to hear a fresh opinion from an outside expert,” he noted. “I appreciate the opportunity to speak with people who know what they are talking about and aren’t going to sugarcoat things to make you feel good.”
Rohlfing had already revamped his business plan from the first weeks of the program, when he came in with a vacation-savings service targeted at consumers, not one for businesses to offer as an employee benefit. Over the course of the summer, he ran into snags trying to develop a functional website, and parted ways with his business partner. He did make progress in getting travel agency accreditation, which gave him access to industry deals and commissions, and raised some funding from friends and family. By week six, he was getting closer to resolving the website issues, but Cowden had other questions. “I know you are concerned about the technical side of things,” he told Rohlfing. “But we still need to know if people care.” He suggested Rohlfing do a deep dive into that question and talk with industry experts who know the vacation-planning business.
And that’s when the mixed opinions came in. Still, Rohlfing remains positive. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to just go with your gut,” he said, “because there are so many opinions, and half of them are wrong and half are right. You aren’t really going to know until you do it. I’m going to try to go for it. I told myself I’d give myself a year, and a year from today, if I’m not in substantially better position, I’ll go on to the next thing.”