July 22, 2020

Student Entrepreneurs Create Startups At PU Keller Center Summer Program 

By Donald Gilpin

Twenty-seven young entrepreneurs, Princeton University graduate and undergraduate students, have been working in teams over the past month to create and launch startup companies as part of the eLab Summer Accelerator Program at Princeton University’s Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education.   

This summer’s program, restructured in just a few weeks last spring to allow the teams to create their startups remotely, will culminate on August 12 when the students pitch their startup ideas to the world at the Ninth Annual Demo Day.

The startup proposals currently being developed and in search of supporters and investors include food, clothing, college admissions, transportation, legal, and pharmaceutical businesses. 

This year’s eLab has been different from the experience of the eight previous years, as meetings with mentors, skill-building workshops, construction of websites and apps, creating logos and marketing materials, surveying potential customers and partners, interacting and learning from each other, and preparing for the Demo Day are all taking place remotely rather than in person. 

Instead of living and working together on campus and at the Princeton Entrepreneurial Hub on Chambers Street, the students have been meeting and communicating remotely. ELab Program Manager Stephanie Landers noted that the students embraced the prospect of a virtual eLab experience, and quickly took advantage of the opportunities it offered.

“The whole 2020 cohort responded with enthusiasm and energy proving their entrepreneurial spirit was strong,” Landers said.

After Princeton University students left campus in mid-March, Landers and Program Coordinator Manda Ryan restructured the program, and added a new component that has proven valuable to all the teams.  This year’s eLab has an advisory panel of entrepreneurs, alumni, and investors with a wide range of experience and know-how who meet with the students weekly via Zoom to serve as a sounding board as the teams develop their ventures.

The virtual setting for this year’s eLab cannot completely replace the live, in-person experience,  but Landers emphasized the advantages. “We often hear from people who want to be a part of supporting our student entrepreneurs, but they don’t have the bandwidth or are unable to travel back and forth to campus,” she said. “Now that we are virtual and the vast majority of people are working from home, we can access advisors and mentors worldwide.” 

Ed Zschau, former high-tech entrepreneurship professor and current interim president of Sierra Nevada University, kicked off the program with a three-day ”boot camp” and has held weekly Zoom meetings with the students. He pointed out the benefits of the virtual experience, including webinars, and other educational and interactive sessions. “The Zoom meetings with my team are typically one hour each week and have been very easy and effective,” he said.

He suggested that this experience could indicate a transformation of the world of entrepreneurship.  “This summer we are undertaking a great experiment to see if startup companies can be successfully formed and launched when the founders are remote from one another,” he said. “If that is true, it has significant implications for the future. It would mean that it may not be necessary to live in expensive areas like Silicon Valley or NYC or even be co-located with other founders to start up a new venture. It could open a great many possibilities.”

Currently the student entrepreneurs are “honing their pitch decks and presentation skills in preparation for Demo Day, through participation in multiple pitch practices and marketing workshops with Keller Center’s dedicated entrepreneurship faculty and industry leaders,” Ryan said.

Their startup proposals include Baseline Health, a business development platform for the pharmaceutical industry; Claudius Legal Intelligence, a legal platform using artificial intelligence and predictive analysis, claiming “it just doesn’t make sense to practice law without it”; Kotami, a clothing brand of “thrifted and upcycled” clothes with a “mission to bridge the gap between sustainability and style”; Maname, a blockchain solution for easing access to transportation services in Africa; Reach, a social media platform for high school students who need help on college admissions from current college students; and The Crumpet Society, a quick-service restaurant company, hoping “to brand ourselves as a food company that is transparent to consumers about what goes into our food and where it comes from.” 

Ryan noted, “We are very proud of the students’ resilience in this bizarre time, and can’t wait to see them shine at Demo Day!”

Further information about the program and Demo Day is available at kellercenter.princeton.edu/events/demo-day-2020.