More than 100 aspiring entrepreneurs at the University of Virginia recently celebrated the opening of a new space for them to meet, make plans and find ways to change the world.
The Lighthouse, a repurposed storage room in Thornton Hall, is the new home of Works in Progress, a program sponsored by the Department of Engineering and Society that aims to bring together student entrepreneurs and support them at any stage of their endeavors.
“The Lighthouse room is a way for us to say ‘thank you’ to the students,” said Elizabeth P. Pyle, who oversees Works in Progress as the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s associate director for technology entrepreneurship. “They are making this happen.”
Works in Progress program director Alex Zorychta, a 2013 UVa graduate, said the program is not just for technology startups, but for “any student who has an idea to make a difference in the world, and will take action to bring it to life.”
As a UVa student, Zorychta helped to develop a novel pregnancy test that won a medal at the iGEM synthetic biology competition. However, he said that it was difficult for him to find the guidance and support he needed to bring the product to market.
Zorychta was hired by UVa in 2015 to create a program that would help students overcome similar challenges. “I have been through this pitfall before,” he said. “The startup scene in Charlottesville is strong, but sparse. And not many of those startups were founded by UVa undergraduates.”
Zorychta interviewed more than 500 interested students to determine what kind of services the new program should provide. He learned that many student entrepreneurs were surprised to find out that other students were working on similar projects.
“Entrepreneurs at UVa felt isolated,” he said. “When there was a success, it seemed to come out of nowhere.”
Zorychta found that these students desired more points of contact who could help their businesses overcome obstacles.
Payam Pourtaheri, cofounder of Charlottesville agricultural chemistry startup AgroSpheres, said Pyle and Zorychta helped him to prepare for business pitch competitions that ultimately awarded his company more than $20,000 in seed funding.
“A lot of great things happened to us because Liz and Alex gave us the tools and advice we needed,” Pourtaheri said.
Pyle and Zorychta have sorted serious student entrepreneurs into small “mastermind groups” that meet regularly to discuss problems and share ideas. In the process, many of these students have become close friends. And some have become business partners.
“When students can choose business partners they trust and know well, they form stronger founding teams,” Zorychta said.
Zorychta said Works in Progress gives student entrepreneurs an opportunity to speak openly about setbacks, instead of being in constant “pitch mode.” It also fosters a strong spirit of collaboration and encourages students to contribute their knowledge and skills to the program once they graduate.
Joshua Anton, a 2014 UVa graduate, has returned frequently to give tips to student entrepreneurs. He was honored for his loyalty to Works in Progress with a photograph on the wall of the Lighthouse room.
Anton created the “Drunk Mode” app, which prevents phone users from calling select contacts while inebriated, among other features. His company, XMode, has attracted more than $1 million in seed funding.
“Sometimes, to keep working on a startup, students have to turn down plum jobs at top companies,” Anton said. “Entrepreneurs have to take risks. Works in Progress provides an extra layer of support to help minimize that risk.”
Works in Progress joins the student-run HackCville and the i.Lab at the Darden School of Business as a resource for entrepreneurs on Grounds.
Daniel Willson, program director for HackCville, said his organization views Works in Progress “… as a partner and an important, complementary part of the UVa entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
The Works in Progress community includes 70-plus active entrepreneurial projects, many of which were represented at the Lighthouse at the opening ceremony last week.
First-year student Grant Sirlin is developing a business that will help UVa varsity athletes offer personal training services to Charlottesville-area youth. Sirlin said personal training is a unique way for college athletes to make money with their sporting talents while staying in compliance with NCAA regulations.
“Works in Progress … lets you toss out your ideas and get feedback,” Sirlin said. “It has been really useful for networking.”
Isabel Araujo, also a first-year student, learned about Works in Progress when Zorychta visited her Science, Technology and Society lecture this year. She said Zorychta helped her to apply for a grant to build a cellphone case that will prevent phones from shutting down in cold weather.
“Before I began meeting with Alex, I had no idea where to start,” Araujo said.
Second-year student Jared Downing is part of the team behind GameChange, a mobile app that features a new game each week based on current events.
“Works in Progress is about community, not just projects,” Downing said. “It’s a community of people you can talk to. We can talk like nerds, and get each other.”