LaunchPad Fellowship Ignites Social Impact Startup Growth
Participants of the recently completed Fall 2020 LaunchPad Fellowship achieved impressive results both in terms of advancing their startups and growing their entrepreneurial skill set. Motivated by a desire to creatively problem-solve and have a positive impact on society, this cohort focused on advancing social impact student startups. Over the course of eight short weeks this past November to December, these 40 student teams worked towards their self-determined goals, received mentorship from Blackstone and Techstars executives, and benefited from informative workshops and content provided by LaunchPad partner Future Founders. Future Founders also led the recruitment and selection of the cohort, and participants received a $5,000 stipend from Future Founders to support their time working on advancing their startup companies.
Similar to results from the first Fellowship cohort from the summer of 2020, a majority of students (75%) met their self-determined goals and 89% would recommend the program to a friend or colleague.
According to Syracuse University student Brianna Howard, who cofounded PAANI, a clean water project in India, with Nikita Chatterjee, “Participating in the Launchpad Fellowship Program has been one of the most eye-opening experiences for me. The LaunchPad network has allowed me to gain access to many resources that were previously not available to me and my business partner.”
Similarly, Cornell student Andres Javier Alvarado, the cofounder of The Collection, an annual virtual arts showcase for gun violence survivors, people with disabilities and their allies, shared that the LaunchPad Fellowship, “teach[es] you the skills needed to run a successful start-up. The skills you learn during the program are invaluable and will help you plan out the future of your start-up with greater clarity. It is a wonderful opportunity and I would recommend it to any entrepreneur with a start-up.”
Goals Achieved and Startup Progress Made
Students this Fall accomplished a wide range of goals over the course of the program, in areas like customer validation, product and service testing and refinement, entity structuring, and team talent – and impressively – even sales and fundraising.
Customer Discovery and Connection.
As is often the case, students in the LaunchPad Fellowship gained a tremendous amount of experience conducting customer research and building relationships for future sales. In fact, at least 13 teams reported completing more than 450 customer discovery interviews. One team, Jubily, a healthcare provider marketplace, from UC Berkeley, completed the NSF I- Corps Customer Discovery Program in conjunction with the LaunchPad Fellowship, conducting 30 customer interviews in one week’s time. According to another student who focused on this critical early-stage work, UC San Diego participant Maisha Cobb, Founder of Mpact International, a workplace diversity solutions company, “Not only did I validate my product idea, but I learned and pivoted my business idea in a direction that will be more viable than my first idea.”
Prototyping, Piloting, Beta, and Launch.
Several student teams took the opportunity to test out their products and services via customer trials and studies. These successes included UT Austin student, Tom Smith who founded Vrify Health, a mental health support service, and finished his prototype over the course of the program, as well as USC student Max Orozco, cofounder of Ready Teddy, a VR-based MRI simulator, for which he initiated 2 pilot programs with research institutions. Max shared the following about his experience in the Fellowship, “Momentum is huge in a startup. Our early victories propelled us to the Blackstone LaunchPad Fellowship which was critical to our successful product launch. As leads continue to come in we are riding the wave from the Fellowship to a solid foundation for our company.”
Business Modeling, Patenting, and Legal Structuring.
Students in this social impact-focused Fellowship pursued their ideas via a variety of entity types, including for-profit B corp and non-profit. As such, a number of them pivoted between these structures over the course of the 8 weeks, formalized business models, and worked towards formalizing and protecting their ideas. One such student founder, Katherine Guevara from USC, transitioned her startup, Mobile Teacher, an offline accessible educator platform for use in developing countries, from LLC to 501c3. Another UC Irvine student entrepreneur, Daniel Vega, incorporated as a C corp and began the filing of a provisional patent for his startup Recreate Energy, a clean energy technology company.
Finding Talent and Growing Teams.
LaunchPad strongly encourages its student entrepreneurs to find and pursue their startup idea with the support and collaboration of a team. As such, more than ¼ of participants took the incredible peer networking opportunity offered by the LaunchPad Fellowship to find and onboard additional talent. In fact, participant startups brought on over 30 individuals as cofounders, web developers, brand ambassadors, and interns. Temple University student Caitlin Luong, who cofounded My Tele Heal, an online therapy marketplace, developed a management system for her team of 10, brought on talent to help with her website, and recruited therapists who could support clients with additional language needs.
Sales and Fundraising.
Perhaps most impressive, however, were the student entrepreneurs who made critical progress in the areas of revenue generation and investment. Beyond the $200,000 made available to Fellowship participants by the Blackstone Charitable Foundation, at least 10 student startups were awarded or raised more than $110,000 in funding through grants, crowdfunding, and competition prizes. In terms of sales, UT Dallas student Francisca Li, launched a holiday collection and sold 35% of inventory in a Black Friday/Cyber Monday pre-sale for her company, Orenda Change, an online retailer with donation functionality. At the same time, Montana State University student, Miles Maxcer closed a $1,000 recurring sale for his startup, The Ant Network, an insect-based early education company, and Shelby Kretz, UCLA student and founder of Little Justice Leaders, a socially-conscious subscription box-based retailer, who reported, “our highest revenue month ever in November.”
LaunchPad Fellowship Program Components
Significantly expanding the programmatic offering of the original LaunchPad Fellowship, this Fall’s cohort benefited from a robust curriculum of workshops delivered by expert speakers from Future Founders on topics like Design Thinking, Digital Marketing and Media, and Financing and Budgeting. According to students, the most popular instructional session in the LaunchPad Fellowship was one on Pitching & Storytelling by Techstars Chief Investment Strategy Officer, Nicole Glaros. According to Texas A&M student founder, Tokunbo ‘TJ’ Falohun, who cofounded AI-Ris, a low-cost retina imaging tool, “The LaunchPad Fellowship has been an amazing experience because of the connections formed to knowledgable mentors and passionate peers as well as the stellar educational lecture series.”
Other elements of the Fall Fellowship included goal-setting (introduced by Techstars Managing Director Zach Nies), which were regularly monitored by LaunchPad network university Campus Directors. Nearly 90% of participants found the weekly goal-tracker exercise ‘valuable’ or ‘extremely valuable’ and 91% met with their Campus Directors regularly (for a total of more than 150 meetings). Perhaps the most valuable element of the Fellowship was a ‘Mentor Week’ which 94% of the cohort participated in. With more than 80 Blackstone executives, Techstars founders, managing directors, and program managers, and Future Founders staff serving as mentors, students reported nearly 200 mentor meetings over the course of the program (including two teams that reported meeting with more than 20 mentors!)
Fatemeh Mirzaei, UC Santa Cruz student and founder and CTO of Wiseper, decentralized fact checking and exploration platform, said, “I enjoyed every aspect of the program from up-to-date workshop presentations to great insights we received from the mentors. It was amazing when we looked at our startup from the lens of other experienced founder mentors and got advice on how best we can move to the next level. I really enjoyed how open people are in helping us out.”
Final elements added to this Fall’s LaunchPad Fellowship included distinctly planned small group gatherings, biweekly socials, which were enjoyed by all the students including Shelby Kretz, UCLA student and founder of Little Justice Leaders, who shared, “This program offered an incredible opportunity to connect with like-minded social entrepreneurs. Having the ability to bounce ideas around with other students who are starting ventures was awesome.”
Finally, the Fellowship concluded with Founder Pipeline and Funding presentations, which offered the students an opportunity to hear from and connect with representatives from social impact-focused organizations like the Gates Foundation, Echoing Green and Venture for America.