The last two and a half years have been an exciting, challenging, and extremely rewarding journey for the Van Wickle Ventures team. Van Wickle Ventures is a student-run venture capital fund under the auspices of the Nelson Center that invests in companies across all different industries and stages, with one common thread: at least one member of the founding team has to have some Brown or RISD affiliation. As soon as we started sourcing companies, we realized that there is no shortage of opportunities within this ecosystem. Not only is there ample opportunity, but Brown-founded companies actually have the highest average exit valuation of any American university.¹ Today, our team consists of eleven associates and six associates in training. The training we provide at VWV is the cornerstone of our philosophy: educating students on how to become effective venture capitalists. Along with this educational mentality, the evergreen structure of our fund, in which we reinvest returns back into the fund, ensures that we can support entrepreneurship on College Hill and beyond.
To date, we have invested in four companies: 305 Fitness, founded by Sadie Kurzban ‘12; Projector, founded by Trevor O’Brien ‘10; Minded, founded by David Ronick ‘89; and Intus Care, founded by Robbie Felton ‘21, Evan Jackson ‘21, Sam Prado ‘21, and Alex Rothberg ‘21. Each of these investments has awarded us the opportunity to dig into different industries, dissect financials, and develop our own theses, opinions, and conviction. Beyond the companies we have invested in, we have diligenced ten more deals and sourced over four hundred deals to date. The best part of VWV is connecting with Brown alums who are building exciting new products and ventures and who we have so much to learn from. On almost every call we have with a founder, the refrain is the same: “I wish VWV had existed when I was a student at Brown.”
Now, looking ahead. Van Wickle Ventures has no intention of stopping or slowing down. With six new associates about to join the team, we anticipate deal flow to continue to be robust and for the opportunities to learn and grow as investors continue to be available to us. In order to do this, we need to raise more capital. Back in 2019, Bob Place ‘75 and Erna Place ‘76 generously donated $150K to fund our first pilot program. Today, with only $50K left in the fund, the Places have again generously offered to invest another $100K of capital into VWV under the condition that we raise another $100K to match that donation through a Fundraising Challenge.* We are so grateful to Bob, all of our past and present Investment Committee members, everyone who serves on our advisory board, and the folks at the Nelson Center who continue to support us. Without all of these people, VWV would not be able to flourish as it has.
We are so honored to be a part of the amazing Brown entrepreneurship community and we cannot wait to see what is in store for us in the future.
All the best,
The Van Wickle Ventures Team
*Learn more about the Van Wickle Ventures Challenge here. To participate, contact Sarah Santos, Director of Development for the Nelson Center, or donate now.
By Madison Frye ‘21 and Trisha Thacker ‘21
Brown Innovation for Health was established in 2016 with the goal of promoting collaboration in the realms of healthcare, business, and technology. To that end, our student organization hosted an annual hackathon ‘Brown Hack Health’ to develop healthcare solutions. However, in 2020, sticking to the event plan we had followed for the last four years did not seem feasible or suitable anymore.
For starters, the COVID-19 pandemic meant hosting a 48-hour hackathon would induce major ‘Zoom fatigue’. But, more broadly, healthcare innovation requires a much larger uplift than other industries because it is a field riddled with regulatory barriers and complex stakeholders. This meant that a 48-hour program fell short of the long-term impact it could create and the support it could provide. This motivated us––Madison Frye ‘21, Trisha Thacker ‘21, along with the two other BIH Co-Presidents, Jolie Ren ‘21.5 and Laila Gamaleldin ‘22––to launch Brown’s first-ever healthcare incubator: a 9-week program called ‘Brown Hatch Health’.
Here are some of our key takeaways:
1. Ensure that the goals of your incubator align with those of your cohort
Before you develop a curriculum, you need to establish clear and achievable goals for your program. The goals for Hatch Health included developing a community of passionate healthcare enthusiasts, providing structure and resources for early-stage venture development, and promoting healthcare entrepreneurship at Brown. These goals guided us through challenges, for example, we developed a Fellowship Program, made up of students passionate about healthcare who did not have a fully-formed venture idea, to get a taste of what the entrepreneurial process within healthcare looks like. We also asked all our participants to submit three goals they hoped to achieve during the incubator, and tried to facilitate those throughout the program.
2. Start advertising before you even think you need to by hosting ‘taster’ (value-add) events
In year 0, we were bogged down with trying to figure out how to create a curriculum from scratch and who our sponsors and partners would be. One of the first things you can do is to start hosting ‘taster’ events such as Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions with healthcare leaders in your community to raise brand awareness of the value-add your incubator will provide.
3. Think critically about whether your community is clustered into teams already, or if you want to facilitate that
One mistake we made was to not think about the logistics of individuals applying versus teams. We did not expect this, but most of our applicants had already formed teams, and had much stronger applicants than solo applications, putting individuals at a disadvantage.
Our take is that unless the incubator is solely for individuals, with matchmaking built into the incubator plan, it’s a better idea to accept teams. Our solution––we realized this a few days before applications were set to close––was to host a quick match-making session for individuals, trying to give them a fair shot at incubator spots. However, one hour is a short amount of time to decide who your startup spouse(s) should be.
In hindsight, hosting a series of matchmaking and casual networking sessions alongside our value-add taster events in the months leading up to the incubator is a great way to help individuals find teams to apply with, as well as build community and advertise the event.
4. Envision the end to determine the middle
In creating your incubator curriculum, decide what you want teams to achieve at the end of the program, in order to determine the length and content of the incubator. We decided we wanted the teams to present at a final showcase to receive financial support and feedback that could propel their ventures further. However, we didn’t want it to be high-enough stakes to breed stiff competition and put too much emphasis on ‘winning’, since our ultimate goal was to support earlier-stage builders whether they continued with their venture or not.
On the subject of curriculum development, Jonas Clark, the Associate Director of the Nelson Center recommended that we think about “learning goals” i.e., look at why a certain topic matters or will matter to your cohort. If you can’t think of a learning goal, it may be a sign that the topic isn’t relevant to your incubator.
5. Build in milestones to key elements of the program
One key decision we made was to have every team submit their planned Q&A as a ‘milestone’ before meeting with industry mentors. This a) helped us ensure teams were well prepared for meetings (so that we preserved strong relationships with mentors) b) allowed us to look over and suggest other questions that might be relevant to their conversations (from our additional knowledge about the mentors and their work) and c) helped teams stay accountable to submitting milestones along with their progress.
We also had more broad milestones such as making a budget, writing venture descriptions, and completing a short online course on startup development. However, as the teams dove deeper into their ideas or pivoted, it became difficult to have uniform milestones that were applicable to everyone. Milestones look vastly different for healthcare hardware vs. healthcare software vs. healthcare services, so pairing broad milestones for the entire cohort (e.g. create an ICP – ideal customer profile) with very specific milestones per team (e.g. write a survey for orthopedic physician interviews) might be more useful.
6. Make all talks as personalized as possible
Before every workshop, every talk, every AMA, we sent the teams’ venture descriptions (which we made sure to update every few weeks as teams pivoted!) to speakers, so that they could personalize their talks to whatever individual ventures were focusing on.
Our final keynote speaker, Karthik, incorporated this personalization the best. He gave his address on broader topics of advancing home healthcare through digital health, however, with each point and example, he found a way to relate it back to the problems or solutions each team was tackling. This is a great way to keep audience members and teams engaged, as well as make the overall experience far more intimate and personalized.
Another way to guarantee personalization is to limit the cohort size. Even though we had a very strong applicant pool, we only selected four teams – Parami, Medicircle, Ponto, and DocuHealth. We were very transparent about the time commitment required and prioritized creating a tight-knit and dedicated cohort over making the incubator as large as possible.
Looking forward, we’re excited to see how Hatch Health can increase Brown students’ interest in healthcare development, as well as bridge the gap between healthcare ideas and sustainable ventures. We’re grateful for all the support from Brown–Lifespan Center for Digital Health, New England Medical Innovation Center, Adler Pollock & Sheehan, and of course––The Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship. See you next year, Brown Hatch Health!
Meet the Hatch Health teams and fellows here!
WE@Brown is an organization dedicated to building an empowering foundation of inspirational dialogue, external mentorship, and entrepreneurial experience. It provides opportunities such as events and partnerships that stem from the female perspective in order to build a supportive community in the entrepreneurial field and beyond! One of these opportunities that WE@Brown offers is the WE@Brown Conference. The annual conference brings together a wide range of femme-identifying founders and thought leaders for a weekend of conversation and connection to propel thinking and prove the power and potential of femme-identifying new businesses. At the 2021 WE@Brown Conference, speakers included Beau Wangtrakuldee, Judith Martinez, Haley Hoffman Smith ’18, Alexandra Kim ’17, Valerie Elefante, and more. Through this experience, WE@Brown creates a space that supports and empowers women in a way that lasts beyond our one-day conference.
The WE@Brown Pitch Competition took place during the conference, which invited six different teams to pitch their ventures for the chance to earn a $1000 grand prize or a $500 fan favorite award. The grand prize winner was Castyr, an amateur-podcast platform that allows for greater user engagement, and the fan-favorite was NutriNett, an organization that recycles unused food from restaurants to food banks. Other ventures included a medical compression device for reducing blood clots (EasyLegs), a collegiate second-hand marketplace (Zaar), a redistribution service for unused cancer treatments (Medicircle), and a redesigned tutoring program (Teaching Buddies). It was our honor to showcase these amazing teams, and we want to extend a huge thank you to our wonderful judges Riche Holmes ’99, Julie Penner ’04, and Emma Butler ’20.
Happy Holidays! We hope this message finds you staying healthy and doing well. This is Chuck Isgar ‘20.5 and Grace Parker ‘21, your proud co-presidents of Brown’s Entrepreneurship Program (EP) from this past year. It seems out of all years, this is a year to reflect on what makes us grateful. This year, we were honored to lead Brown’s Entrepreneurship Program, and we are so thankful for the experiences and people we have met along the way. It is hard to put into words the commitment and enthusiasm that our 75 members have brought to the club despite the circumstances, and we would like to use this blog post as a way to reflect on our time leading EP and an outlook toward the amazing things ahead.
We have watched our members adapt and grow into a community that makes us extremely proud. During one of our many strategic planning conversations, we set out a goal: to turn EP into a family. Specifically, we wanted each member of EP to leave every weekly Sunday meeting feeling inspired and ideally feeling like they had begun a new friendship. We knew that getting to this point would require commitment from the team leads of EP’s 11 teams and from our 75 members. To this end, last January we brainstormed with the team leads and had each of them write down their goals for the year. By the end of the meeting, the walls of the Liz Lange Lecture Hall in the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship were covered with poster boards with neon-colored writing, expressing what each team wanted to accomplish. Our journey of leading EP had begun.
With a focus on increasing the transparency of EP, we jump-started the semester with a very successful in-person info session where prospective applicants to EP had the opportunity to meet the team leads and immerse themselves into the Brown entrepreneurial scene. We saw 50+ students attend this info session, and we continued the info session during the application process in September, albeit virtually. EP now has 75 hardworking, inspiring, and determined members.
Aligned with our goal of making sure the members of EP were learning something new at every EP meeting, we coordinated various guest speakers to join our group. Our first guest speakers were Nick Martell ‘11 and Jack Kramer from Robinhood Snacks. They inspired and captivated EP, and we put the Zoom Room functionality in the Nelson Center to work. Little did we know how important Zoom would soon become. Before Brown transitioned to a fully virtual format due to COVID-19, we held the Women’s Empowerment Conference (WE) conference which would be our very last in-person event. It was a special event that featured a variety of inspiring speakers, a pitch competition, networking, and more.
EP Makes It Happen, Even During a Pandemic
Soon after the WE Conference, we learned of Brown’s transition to a virtual format. With an understanding that we would be leading our club through a global pandemic, we worked quickly to cancel all in-person events for the remainder of the semester, and most importantly, to be a resource for our 75 members as they determined and navigated their plans for the rest of the semester.
In true EP fashion, our members did not want EP to stop and neither did we. So we pushed onwards and upwards. We hosted virtual events, and in lieu of our speaker meetings, we recorded interviews for our members with alumni such as Olivia Rodriguez ‘11, the Manager for Business Development and Sales Strategy at Instacart. The Finance Team planned our first-ever virtual event hosting a range of different venture capitalists, including Lee Hower, a co-founder of LinkedIn. The Alumni Relations Team hosted the first virtual Roundtable Discussion with Luke Sherwin ‘12, the Co-founder of Casper and Block Renovation.
Partnering with AMPLIFY and Spelman College
We transitioned to the summer which marked the start of our life-long partnership with AMPLIFY and Spelman College. AMPLIFY’s mission is to bring to light underrepresented voices in entrepreneurship and VC. As one of the original participants of the AMPLIFY initiative, EP hosted an event in August with Spelman’s Entrepreneurship Club that featured Austin Martin ‘17, founder of Rhymes with Reason. This started our partnership with Spelman’s Entrepreneurship Club, which we have loved developing this semester. We had a social/networking night with our two programs and also planned a speaker event with John Smothers as our guest.
We brainstormed ways of how EP could become a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable community. Elvia Perez ‘22 has done a masterful job of creating EP’s new Diversity and Inclusion team this fall, and we’re so excited to support her and the team in continuing efforts in this very important priority to EP.
Finishing the Summer Strong and Gearing Up for the Fall
We ended our summer with something really exciting: for the first time in over 20 years, we brought together the past co-presidents of EP for a happy hour. We had over 20 past co-presidents of EP join us, going back to the first EP co-presidents in 1998. These conversations led us to new and renewed engagements with alumni and served as inspiration as we finalized our plans for how we could turn the virtual nature of the fall semester ahead into an opportunity.
As the summer came to an end, we transitioned EP to a completely virtual format for the fall. We told our members that EP would function just as it always has, but virtually. As we planned for what EP would look like in the fall, we decided to rethink the application process with an effort to make the process as transparent and accessible as possible. We decided to interview every single person who applied to EP, as well as expand the number of people who would be accepted.
Particularly noteworthy is that we opened our application process to first-years at Brown, some of whom have never even stepped foot on campus. We welcomed many of them to our club this fall, and it has been an absolute pleasure to be the first connection point to Brown for some of them.
The Fall Semester: Becoming a Family
As our meetings for the fall began, we learned the magic of Zoom break out rooms and their power to allow us as a club to meet each other and come together as a community. We continued our efforts to ensure our members learned one new thing every Sunday. We hosted a range of speakers, from students to seasoned professionals. Albert Saniger, the co-founder of Nate joined us and shared about his experience building and scaling a technology startup. Robbie Felton ‘21 and Evan Jackson ‘21 shared their experience breaking down barriers as student founders in the healthcare space. Erika Bower ‘09, a former co-president of EP, provided great wisdom about how to navigate work opportunities during challenging economic times. In all speaker events, our guests inspired EP members and pushed us to think.
Every team in EP has done so much over the year, and we want to share a few highlights, but this recap is certainly not exhaustive by any means. The Tech team made our website look fabulous, and created a new workshop series to help students develop tech skills and get their startup ideas off the ground. The Design and Marketing team has worked extremely hard on so many amazing new designs for our events and they redesigned the logo for EP’s Podcast team. They created the new EP innov8 campaign which has inspired not just the EP community, but also those outside of it. They have shown us what it means to commit yourself to what you care about. An example of this is, Kaito Ran ‘22, the co-lead of the Design and Marketing team who joined us for every weekly Zoom from Japan early in the morning.
The Podcast team utilized our virtual space and continued to release one episode a month (Dive In x Brown EP). They have created professional podcasts featuring guests ranging from Austin Martin ‘17, Jane Mosbacher Morris, Jack Roswell ‘20, and Sarah Leary.
Putting Zoom to Great Use for Panels, Conferences, Accelerators, Pitch Nights, Roundtables, and More
The Community team and Diversity and Inclusion team collaborated to host an incredible LGBTQ panel. In addition to providing support for the 25+ active student-run ventures at Brown, the Community team also hosted a phenomenal healthcare panel that featured student founders innovating in the healthcare space, including EP’s own Jack Shaeffer ‘22. The Special Events team hosted the Food in Providence Panel and they have been planning the first-ever virtual NYC Synapse, as well as a virtual East Africa Synapse.
The Alumni Relations team has come in and saved the day with their alumni database, working hard to connect alumni with all teams of EP. They also hosted roundtable discussions featuring Toby Howell ‘19 at the Morning Brew and Margaret Hartigan ‘97, the CEO and Founder of Marstone, Inc. Innovation DOJO, the student-run semester-long accelerator, transitioned the full DOJO experience to a virtual format. In November, they hosted their Demo Day where the teams of students made their pitches in front of an all-star lineup of judges who were left in awe at the pitches and the work the teams had done over the semester.
The Women’s Empowerment (WE) team hosted their accelerator program and both WE and Startup@Brown are getting ready for their first-ever virtual conferences. We are blown away by all the amazing work that EP’s members have accomplished during such an unprecedented time. We thank all 75 of you for leading EP with passion, hard work, and laughter. It is because of you that EP has not just continued throughout the pandemic but thrived.
We remember our very first EP meeting as co-presidents, sitting on the second floor of the Nelson Center, looking at the neon-colored writing stretching from wall to wall. We sat staring at the walls feeling inspired and excited for the future of EP. We actually still have those poster boards with all of EP’s dreams and we are so proud that even through a global pandemic, EP was able to accomplish even more than what was written in those neon colors. That is a true testament to EP and how we really do Make It Happen.
Our co-presidency has been far from easy. This past year has taught us the true meaning of hard work, resilience, and the importance of community in a time of loneliness and devastation. We have made mistakes and had sleepless nights, but we have become better people and leaders because of these moments. This is a bittersweet moment for us. We are sad that our time leading this club has come to a close, but we feel so lucky that we had this opportunity to lead 75 passionate members and to have met so many amazing people along the way. What makes this transition less difficult for us is the confidence we have in our club going forward and our trust in the new leaders of EP.
We want to thank all the people who make EP as special as it is: our mentors at the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, faculty, staff, alumni, and most of all, the student members. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for helping make the heartbeat of EP go faster than ever. There is still more work to be done in EP, and it is now time to pass the baton to Isa Espinosa ‘22 and Mike Wang ‘22 who will do a tremendous job continuing to make EP the best it can be. Out of all the accomplishments our members have made over the year, we are most proud to have built a community that truly feels like a family. We feel lucky to be a part of this family, and we will be forever supporters and fans of EP.
With love and hope for the future,
Grace Parker ‘21 and Chuck Isgar ‘20.5 – Co-Presidents, Brown EP, 2020
YEP! (Young Entrepreneurs of Providence) is a Nelson Center- and EP-sponsored initiative at Brown University that seeks to introduce the entrepreneurial and design-thinking mindset to high school students in the local Providence area. Through expert guest lectures, interactive workshops, individual office hours, and team projects, students learn about the process of entrepreneurship and gain valuable problem-solving skills. YEP! strives to strengthen Brown University’s relationship with the local community.
YEP! was founded upon the principle that you have to think differently to be an entrepreneur. Whether it be age, nationality, race, or gender identity, we are confident that the best entrepreneurs are those among us with a unique perspective on the problems that face our world. While developing our third incubator, we knew we had to think differently as well. As the COVID-19 crisis and the racial unrest in our country illuminated deep systemic issues, we realized how necessary it was to nurture the next generation of changemakers. This semester, we looked beyond just entrepreneurship and into other modes of social change, such as nonprofit organizations and government advocacy, to give students the full set of tools to enact the change they want to see in the world.
On November 23, 2020, we hosted YEP! Pitch Night where twelve students presented groundbreaking new ideas to solve problems that impact our local and global communities. Our students presented their ventures to over fifty members of the Brown community. The panel of judges included Brown University educators, students, and entrepreneurs: Hamzah Ansari ‘09, Alan Harlam, Robbie Felton ‘21, and Elvia Perez ‘22. Click here to watch the recording.
Our students developed a diverse range of initiatives to tackle both small and large-scale issues. One of our students, Rebecca Xu, created a nonprofit organization called Politics for People of Color (PPOC) to provide educational resources and build community among historically underrepresented groups in order to increase the number of BIPOC in government. Rebecca recently hosted her first PPOC event, featuring Rhode Island House of Representative member Anastasia Williams, Providence Councilwoman Sabina Matos, and Central Falls City Councilwoman Jessica Vega. On the other hand, some students pursued for-profit ventures. For example, Sasha Kagan, who cares deeply about the environmental impact of the fashion industry, realized that there were barriers preventing consumers from making informed shopping decisions. Therefore, Sasha created Sustain, a web browser extension that generates a sustainability score so online shoppers know how their products are made and where to find more ethical alternatives. By empowering customers with important information, Sasha hopes to inspire more sustainable fashion production and consumerism.
We are so incredibly proud of our students and we cannot wait to see what they will continue to accomplish in the future!
Article written by Audrey Shapiro ‘21, Leah Lam ‘21, and Lucia Winton ‘21