After two years online, the fifth annual Brown Venture Prize Pitch Night returned in full celebration for an in-person event held in Alumnae Hall. The Brown Venture Prize, designed to empower the most advanced entrepreneurial ventures by Brown students, received overwhelming support this year with a live audience of 250+ people that was standing room only. An electric atmosphere filled the room as each venture took the stage to pitch ventures focused on solving some of the world’s most difficult problems.
Danny Warshay ‘87, Executive Director of the Nelson Center, served as the official MC for the night, giving a warm welcome to the crowd before kicking off the event. The top seven ventures pitching this year were: aloud, AtomICs, Cinemates, COmmunity ADherence (COAD), Dream!N, Kerja.io, and Pointz Mobility, Inc. After each pitch, the founders answered questions from a lineup of impressive judges, which included Ben Chesler ‘15, Mary Pan ‘99, Sadie Kurzban ‘12, Melanie Whelan ‘99, Michael Song ‘89, Jessica Murphy ‘00, Richard Katzman ‘78, and Lisa Gelobter ‘91.
The companies the judges have built or led include tEQuitable, SoulCycle, TrueFit, Imperfect Foods, and 305 Fitness. They are creators, innovators, and investors from Certeris Capital, Madison Park Ventures, and Rustic Canyon Partners. For some, the event also served as a reunion as Danny pointed out that several of the judges, specifically Ben and Sadie, had once been students in his classENGN 1010, The Entrepreneurial Process. Sadie wrote her business plan in Danny’s class and launched 305 Fitness on campus. Sadie then scaled 305 Fitness to major cities all over the country and pivoted during the pandemic to bring her classes virtually into people’s homes. Likewise, Ben took Danny’s course and developed Imperfect Foods, scaling the business nationwide, raising over $100mm, and saving 139 million pounds of food from going to waste.
Every venture was met with a roar of applause from the audience after giving a clear, energetic, and engaging four-minute pitch for their idea. The judges had a difficult time deciding the top three winners. In the end, AtomICs, founded by Selahaddin Gumus PhD ’24, Dana Biechele-Speziale PhD ’24, Brenda Rubenstein, and Jacob Rosenstein, won 1st Place with $25,000; Dream!n, founded by Yuhan Zhang ’24, Yifei Wang ’23, Hanxuan Zhang, and Chufan Wu, won 2nd Place with $15,000; and COAD, founded by Bevan Bsharah ’22, Rose Engler ’22, Loan Anh Tran ’22, Sunny Li ’23, and Nicholas Simone ’21 took 3rd Place with $10,000.
Cinemates, founded by Tatiana Mandis ’23, won the Fan Favorite award of the night, determined by a vote from the audience. When considering what being a part of the top seven teams meant to her, Tatiana said “I was so honored that Cinemates was one of the top seven ventures. The Brown Venture Prize Pitch Competition gave Cinemates invaluable exposure to Brown Alums and local founders and investors. My pitch gave me the opportunity to garner the attention of mentors who continue to provide valuable insight and guidance.” Rose Engler ’22, who presented for COAD, reflected on the experience stating that she was “super proud of (her) team and everything (they had) accomplished.” Yifei Wang ’23, who presented for Dream!n, said “I’m so excited (to win the prize),” reflecting on how his team practiced “hundreds of times” for their pitch.
Overall, the night was a thrilling return of a beloved celebration among the Brown entrepreneurship community. Once the winners were announced, everyone gathered in the back of the room eager to reconnect after such a long period of mainly seeing one another virtually. One audience member Chinazo Onyema admitted that she originally “planned to stay for about 30 minutes or so because I had an assignment due but the show was too good to leave even a second early. I thought it was phenomenally executed and found all the pitches inspiring.” Chinazo further reflected on the event saying “Additionally, I thoroughly enjoyed watching my ex-classmates on the podium because I witnessed their growth from our online entrepreneurship class to the venture prize show. I can’t wait to attend next year’s venture prize and possibly be on the podium one day!”
It was a celebratory evening that once again revealed the bright future of entrepreneurship at Brown, fueled by the students’ innovation and the support of alums, faculty, staff, and friends. We look forward to next year as another chance to celebrate this growing entrepreneurship community at Brown and the work we are all doing to create more solutions with impact.
Recognition of the Nelson Center Staff is also in order. The event could not have been possible without the impressive organizational and planning skills of Liz Malone, Tori Gilbert, and Sheila Haggerty. Jonas Clark spent hours coaching students to develop the incredible pitches for each venture. Danny Warshay led the event with ease and served as an unwavering source of support for the Nelson Center team. Often the technological aspects of the event go unnoticed, but we could not have hosted such a successful event without the expertise of New England Showtime Productions Inc., Brown University Media Services team under the leadership of Giovanna Gastaldi, and the Office of Communications’ Events Management team.
Despite the challenges we all faced this past year, we are grateful that through the support of the Nelson Center community we can look back and find many moments of joy, learning, and growth. Whether virtually or in person, the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship brought us together so we could continue to work toward providing Brown students with the necessary tools to solve problems and make an impact. Even against all of the challenges we faced, we successfully hosted more events and programs than ever before, engaging our community from all over the world. Thank you to all who supported our work this past year and we look forward to what the next year will bring.
To celebrate and wrap up the year, here are a few of our highlights from 2021! You can also visit our YouTube channel to revisit some of our events and celebrations.
Happy New Year!
– Nelson Center Team
We celebrated our five-year anniversary! As part of that celebration, we launched the Nelson@5 short video series which provides a closer look at the Nelson Center’s first five years through the words and experiences of students, alums, and members of the Nelson team. And to top it off we also put together a fun timeline looking back on some of our biggest milestones.
Over 470 people from all over the world tuned in this year to participate virtually in the Brown Venture Prize (BVP) and Breakthrough Lab (B-Lab) programs, which continue to provide critical education and venture support for student founders. The first place 2021 BVP winner MediCircle, for example, founded by Eliza Sternlicht ’22 and Jack Schaeffer ’22, recently raised a $1.2 million pre-seed round on the heels of their first place victory. The virtual B-Lab Showcase featured all 15 student ventures that participated in this summer’s B-Lab venture accelerator program. B-Lab teams ranged from an e-commerce platform for small businesses in sub-Saharan Africa, a hand-held electricity generator for use in remote areas, to a reimagined mentoring platform for BIPOC students. We look forward to seeing everyone back in-person in 2022 for both BVP and B-Lab!
Van Wickle Ventures continued its amazing momentum by raising $200,000 through the Van Wickle Ventures Challenge. This Challenge, created and supported by the Place family (Robert Place ’75 and Erna Place ’76) matched up to $100,000 in funding for all gifts of $20,000 or more to support VWV. This educational venture fund, started and run by Brown students, helps give members first-hand knowledge of early-stage venture financing. We want to send a huge thank you to all of those who worked hard to put this Challenge together and to the generosity of the Place family and our tremendous alumni donors who contributed.
We welcomed Tori Gilbert to our Nelson Center team as our Events & Operations Coordinator! Tori is an alum of Johnson & Wales University, where she studied Event Management and completed her Master’s in Business Administration. With ten years of experience in the nonprofit sector, she has been involved with planning events, customer engagement, and day-to-day operations. Meet Tori and the entire Nelson team here.
In June, our virtual research conference The Entrepreneurship You Don’t See: Bringing Visibility to New Majority Founders welcomed scholars from around the world to examine entrepreneurship at the intersection of women, refugees, immigrants, allyship, and anti-Black racism. The 2020-21 Hazeltine Graduate Research Grant recipients, Ashley Gomez, Ph.D. candidate in Public Health, and Ieva Zumbyte, Ph.D. candidate in Sociology, also presented their research. Two inaugural scholarly awards were presented at the conference. The Emerging Scholar in Entrepreneurship Award was conferred to Courtney McCluney, Ph.D. and The Lifetime Achievement Award was awarded to Juliet E.K. Walker, Ph.D.
As another interesting year comes to an end, we want to recognize the perseverance of students and alums who continue to identify problems and develop solutions with impact. Although not a comprehensive list, here are a few Nelson Center entrepreneurs who in the past six months have recently reached impressive milestones, including raising capital, launching new products, and garnering recognition from the press.
The diversity of ventures and founders, many of whom are alums of Breakthrough Lab and past Brown Venture Prize winners, featured below reflects how these students have embraced Brown’s emphasis on interdisciplinary study while also applying the structured entrepreneurship process we teach at the Nelson Center. To learn more about how the Nelson Center serves as a resource for students at Brown, we invite you to watch the third video in our Nelson@5 series, with a special appearance from Jonathan M. Nelson ’77, P’07, P’09.
We are so proud of the incredible work done by these students and alums. Continue reading to learn more about these exciting new updates, and keep a lookout as we continue to share stories from the Nelson Center!
– NCE Team
Brown Students & Alums Raise Significant Funding
MediCircle Raises $1.2M in Pre-Seed Round of Funding
MediCircle (2021 BVP First Place Winner), founded by Eliza Sternlicht ’22 and Jack Schaeffer ’22, improves access to healthcare by redistributing unopened and unexpired pharmaceuticals, $5 billion of which is wasted annually. By collecting medications that would otherwise be discarded from long-term care facilities and redistributing them to safety-net hospitals, MediCircle provides free medicine to those who need it. MediCircle raised a $1.2 million pre-seed round, with Brown student-led Van Wickle Ventures as an investor, and will be moving forward with several of the many hospitals interested in partnering with them. To read more about MediCircle, read this feature in the Brown Alumni Magazine.
Pointz Raises Pre-Seed Round of Funding
Pointz (2020 B-Lab and 2021 Community Lab Venture), founded by Maggie Bachenberg ’22 and Trisha Ballakur ’22, is a mobile app that helps bicyclists find the safest route to their destination. This “waze for bikes” determines these routes by using road data and crowdsourced route information. Pointz recently raised a pre-seed round of funding in September 2021 and was featured in the Providence Business Journal.
Founder of Healthy Roots Dolls Yelitsa Jean-Charles RISD ’16 Raises $1M in Seed Funding
Yelitsa Jean-Charles RISD ’16, founder of Healthy Roots Dolls (2015 B-Lab Alum and Former Swearer Center Social Innovation Fellow), raised $1M in seed funding earlier this year and is focused on expanding the company’s brand and product line. Healthy Roots is a toy company that creates dolls and storybooks that empower young girls and better represent the beauty of our diversity. Recently, Healthy Roots Dolls became available in 1,200 Target stores nationwide after selling out online in just a few days in February. Read more in Crunchbase.
Founder of Omena Francesca Raoelison ’22 Raises Over $15,000
Francesca Raoelison ’22, founder of Omena (BVP 2021 finalist and 2019 B-Lab Alum), recently raised over $15,000 from over 110 donors in their first-ever fundraiser. Omena is a non-profit organization committed to increasing awareness of emotional abuse in Madagascar’s educational system by providing tools for students to combat and stand up to abuse. Francesca quickly scaled Omena and currently has 100+ volunteers around the world (13 countries and counting), and its work has been recognized by MTV, supported by the Clinton Foundation, as well as Forbes Under 30. Omena was also featured in The Boston Globeearlier this year.
Pangea, Founded by Adam Alpert ’17 and John Tambunting ’17, Closes a $2M Seed Round
Pangea (B-Lab 2017 Alums) is a platform that matches companies to students for freelance projects in marketing and graphic design. Pangea, founded by Adam Alpert ’17 and John Tambunting ’17, joined the winter cohort of Y Combinator, which provides seed funding for startups by investing $125K in a large number of companies twice a year. After graduating from Y Combinator earlier this year, Pangea set out to secure $1.5 million and wound up raising more. Read more here.
Bolden Therapeutics Receives $500,000 from the National Institute on Aging
Bolden Therapeutics (2021 Brown Venture Prize Finalist), co-founded by Johnny Page ’24, Justin Fallon, Professor of Neuroscience, and Ashley Webb, Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology, recently received a $500,000 Phase I Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant from the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health. Bolden Therapeutics is a biotechnology startup developing therapeutics to treat central nervous system diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and ischemic stroke. Read here to learn more about Bolden Therapeutics and the work the STTR grant will support.
Brown Students & Alums Meet Notable Milestones
Emma Butler ‘20 Featured in Forbesand Announces Product Launch Date
Intimately (2018 B-Lab Alum and 2020 BVP Second Place Winner), founded by Emma Butler ’20, is an online retailer that sells undergarments and lingerie for women with disabilities. Intimately believes all women deserve to have access to comfortable undergarments that they can easily put on and makes the shopping experience more inclusive for women everywhere. Intimately just announced that February would be the launch date for its first line of intimates. Emma was also recently featured in Forbesfor her work with Intimately.
ResusciTech Pitches to Apple CEO Tim Cook and is Featured in Brown Alumni Magazine
Abigail Kohler ’20 and Greg Fine ’20, co-founders of ResusciTech (2020 BVP Winner and 2019 B-Lab Alum), were recently selected as one of a handful of companies to pitch to Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, during the Silicon Slopes Summit in Salt Lake City. ResusciTech’s app, SMART Certification, offers convenient, smartphone-based CPR training that provides compression practice with real-time feedback. Read more here. To learn more about ResusciTech’s work, read their recent feature in the Brown Alumni Magazine.
1440 Media, Passes 1M Subscriber Milestone and Wins Platinum Award in 2021 MassChallenge Accelerator
Pierre Lipton‘20 is the Co-Founder & COO of 1440 Media, a daily email newsletter with an emphasis on facts and data, not clickbait and talking heads. 1440 Media recently passed one million subscribers, making it one of the largest newsletters in the industry. It also won the $50,000 Platinum Award in this year’s MassChallenge accelerator. Read more about 1140 Media here.
Co-Founder of Brevitē Brandon Kim RISD ’18 Goes Viral on TikTok
Brevitē (2017 B-Lab Alum), co-founded by Brandon Kim RISD ’18 with his brothers Dylan Kim and Elliot Kim, is a direct-to-consumer startup that offers quality and functional backpacks that reflect how people live and work today. Now a multi-million dollar brand, Brevitē was the most talked-about backpack on TikTok and has expanded from their initial photography-focused backpacks into everyday backpacks as well. Learn more here.
2021 MassChallenge Cohort Includes Brown Students and Alums
RI Business Competition Pitch Contest WinnersAre All Brown Students
The RI Business Competition announced the three winners of its 2021 Elevator Pitch Contest, which awarded a total of $1,000 in cash prizes. First place was Alison Veintimilla, founder of Burbujita Mandhu, which has a curated, patented solution to treat burn wounds. In second place was Jessica Chiu MS ’22, whose company, Regenaxion, is a venture looking to change the way the world thinks about biotechnology. Third place was Faith Keller whose company, Century Tree Therapeutics, aims to commercialize a novel nucleic acid therapy that treats a variety of cancers using a genetically targeted approach.
Uproot, Co-founded by Kevin Eve ’18, Brings Cartons to Tech Companies and Universities
Kevin Eve ’18, winner of the 2019 Brown Venture Founder award, co-founded Uproot (2018 B-Lab Alum) in 2018 with the goal of making it easier for food services to provide healthy, sustainable plant-based milk. Since then, its oat milk and chocolate pea milk cartons have become available in leading tech companies (Facebook), financial institutions, and colleges around the country (including Brown!). It also has cemented relationships with leading distribution and food service management companies like US Foods, Sysco, and Compass Group. To fund this growth, the company is raising a pre-seed round from angel investors which it plans to complete by the end of the year.
In the News
H2Ok (2019 Brown Venture Prize Alum) Featured in 2021 Forbes 30 under 30. Learn more here.
EmpowerU (2020 B-Lab Alum and 2021 BVP Winner) Featured in News From Brown and Brown Daily Herald. Read the News from Brown article here and the Brown Daily Herald feature here.
Perkies (2018 Brown Venture Prize Finalist and B-Lab 2018 Alum) Featured in Forbes. Read the article here.
Brown Alums and Students Named Rhode Island Inno’s 5 Under 25. Read the article here.
Social Media app Emit featured in Brown Daily Herald. Read more here.
Kerja.io (Fall 2021 Community Lab (Co-Lab) Cohort) Featured in Rhode Island Inno. Read the article here.
The Reem Company (2021 B-Lab Alum) Featured in News from Brown Read the News from Brown article here.
Brown University’s Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship’s second research conference, The Entrepreneurship You Don’t See: Bringing Visibility to New Majority Founders, brought together over three hundred and fifty interdisciplinary scholars alongside policymakers and practitioners from around the world who research, practice, or engage in policymaking around entrepreneurship that brings to the forefront the intersections of anti-Black racism, women, refugees, immigrants, and allyship. A major part of the conference engaged in critical discussions on these issues, and in particular, anti-Black and structural racism.
The journal Gender, Work and Organization (GWO) (Prof. Banu Ozkazanc-Pan, co-editor-in-chief), will sponsor a special issue based on the conference theme in order to create and support knowledge production on this domain to be published in 2022. Check back with us for details.
On Tuesday, April 27, I presented my senior policy thesis, a program evaluation on Young Entrepreneurs of Providence (YEP!). YEP! is a completely free entrepreneurship incubator program for Providence public high school students hosted at the Nelson Center. Every week, Brown professors, entrepreneurs, and social impact leaders teach YEP! students key entrepreneurial concepts that they apply to a venture they develop. Over the past two and a half years, YEP! has worked with 100 brilliant students from 11 different schools throughout Rhode Island.
YEP! was developed with two missions:
The first aim of YEP! is to develop capable entrepreneurs that will grow the prosperity of their respective communities. The current imbalances in wealth in the United States make it critical that we develop innovative solutions to stimulate wealth in low-income communities. By creating an early entrepreneurial education program, YEP! hopes to develop innovative entrepreneurs that will grow the wealth of communities with high poverty rates like Providence.
YEP! ‘s second aim is to improve the relationship between college campuses and their surrounding communities. The extreme imbalance of wealth in this nation is reflected in the resource discrepancy between elite universities and their surrounding communities. Every Ivy League university except for Harvard and Dartmouth is surrounded by a town with a poverty rate higher than the national average, 14%. Through developing a program that invites Providence public school students onto Brown’s campus, YEP! strives to create a more bilateral relationship between Providence and Brown.
In order to assess whether YEP! is able to achieve its two goals of producing capable entrepreneurs and strengthening Brown’s relationship with Providence, I conducted interviews with 80% of our alumni. The results of the study conclude that YEP! has demonstrable gains on both fronts.
Entrepreneurial Knowledge and Capability
In terms of YEP! ‘s potential to produce capable entrepreneurs, the results of the study found that after the incubator:
83% of YEP! ‘s participants believed they had sufficient knowledge to start a venture despite having no prior exposure to entrepreneurship
83% of the participants interviewed have launched or are in the process of launching their own venture in Providence
One participant shared that before YEP! they “did not know how to spell entrepreneurship.” But, they said, “Every night I would watch my parents come home late at night, and they were exhausted and sad. I wanted to create a better life for them and myself. I knew I wanted to create my own business, so I applied for YEP!” This student has currently made this dream a reality as they are on a gap year from college to start their own cosmetics business.
The advanced level of entrepreneurial knowledge that YEP! participants gained in the program suggests that it may be a meaningful tool to develop capable entrepreneurs in people with little to no exposure to entrepreneurship. Additionally, the high degree of entrepreneurial activity from participants suggests that YEP! has the potential to stimulate entrepreneurship in low-income communities.
The results from the study also suggest that YEP! has the potential to improve town-gown relations. 75% of our participants’ perception of Brown changed from unwelcoming to welcoming after the incubator.
Many students shared that before YEP! they were too afraid to even walk down Thayer Street. After YEP!, though, their perception of Brown changed drastically. By coming to campus, the majority of participants started to see Brown as a place that was welcome to them and that they could utilize. Our students frequently use Brown’s public resources and can be found nearby campus even after the incubator.
An unexpected result was that inviting Providence students on to campus not only changed their perception of Brown University, it changed their perception of what they could achieve. One student spoke about this experience by saying; “I would have never imagined that Brown would invite me or students at my school on to campus. We don’t have millionaire parents. The fact that you all wanted us. It changed things for me.”
This student, along with 50% of the students interviewed, said that they decided to apply to more academically rigorous universities after YEP!. In fact, two of the alumni interviewed are applying to transfer to Brown.
The results from this study suggest that a program like YEP! has the potential to make elite universities feel less insular and more welcoming to the local community. In doing so, YEP! is able to foster better town-gown relations and impact the trajectories of its participants.
Overall, the results of this thesis conclude that YEP! has the potential to both develop entrepreneurs in low-income communities and improve town-gown relations. At the end of the day, though, it is not our program that has done this; it is our students. If there is one thing that you take away from this blog post, I hope you see the power of Providence students. Our future depends on these students and other students throughout America- and we are in good hands- but only if we give them the opportunities, they need to flourish.
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.¹Today, 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.