The University of Virginia’s i.Lab is where good business ideas go to become great ones.
Local entrepreneurs and their teams apply for the incubator program in January, and if they’re one of about 20 groups selected after a Shark Tank-style round of pitches, they’ll be admitted into a 10-week program where their start-ups are provided a $5,000 grant, workshops, mentorship and workspace, followed by ongoing support from the folks on staff at the i.Lab.
Since the summer of 2013, the lab has provided more than $600,000 in grant funding to more than 100 business ventures, according to its director, David Touve. He says, long-term, its programs have racked up nearly $1.5 million in grants to more than 225 ventures and their 400-plus team members over the past 18 years.
At the i.Lab, the entrepreneurial spirit is contagious.
A bright green wall on the left side of the lobby is likely the first thing you’ll notice. This is the “idea well,” where ways in which people can help others are brainstormed onto white pieces of scrap paper and hung from floor to vaulted ceiling. For example, the one that’s positioned the highest says, “I can reach high places.”
The lab looks a bit like Charlottesville’s own miniature Googleplex. Some walls can be written on and some are made of glass. Some work spaces are intimate and some are wide open and intended to be shared. And don’t forget the pitch room, where a traffic light is programmed to respond to the sound of clapping. Going for the green light? Your pitch had better get a hearty round of applause.
Sandra McCutcheon is the i.Lab’s program manager, and Touve took over as its director in the summer of 2016 when he transitioned from directing the Galant Center at the McIntire School of Commerce—where he taught and developed undergrad courses and programs such as the uber-popular entrepreneurship minor—across Grounds to the Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Darden School of Business, which funds the i.Lab.
On a recent trip to the think tank on Nash Drive, Touve gives a tour of the 9,500-square-foot building, bopping in and out of classrooms and workspaces that he says are unusually quiet. He enters what he calls the “tinker space,” where Babylon Micro-Farm founder Alexander Oleson is studying one of his hydroponic systems—or a “shelf to grow organic produce in restaurants,” Oleson explains.
The incubator program that Babylon was initially a part of launched around 2000 and has continued to grow and transform ever since. Its director, Jason Brewster, says something like 80 percent of Charlottesville founders or ventures were nurtured by the i.Lab in some way in 2016.
“Where I think we’re doing a good job is filling the funnel,” he says. “Annually, i.Lab alumni are at the forefront of capital raised in Charlottesville.”
While in some cases, Brewster says those funds are accumulated by ventures that went through the incubator program, in other cases, the capital is raised by the founder of an i.Lab start-up’s subsequent company. For this reason, he and other mentors often focus on the founders themselves, rather than their actual businesses.
“Initial ideas fail,” he says. “Considerable trial, error and refinement always precede success. Focusing on individuals is critical to ensure founders understand how to navigate the company genesis.”
Application deadlines have passed for this summer’s incubator program, but the staff encourages local entrepreneurs to check in next year, no matter their age.
When asked about the range of entrepreneurs who’ve made it through his program, Brewster doesn’t mince words. “Some are either unable to drink or collecting Social Security.”
The start-ups that mentors hand-pick to participate in i.Lab programming often grow to have a magnanimous impact.
“Some of these ventures have gone on to raise millions, even tens of millions of dollars in venture capital,” Touve says. “Other ventures provide mentoring connections or music training to hundreds of students each year, or inspire thousands of attendees through a festival each April.”
Perhaps the most well known idea to launch out of the i.Lab is the last one Touve refers to—the Tom Tom Foundation, which hosts an annual festival that brings a massive accumulation of events, speakers and concerts that celebrate entrepreneurship, culture and innovation to Charlottesville each spring.
Tom Tom founder Paul Beyer says his company had just wrapped up its second festival when he was selected to participate in the incubator program, and he called on mentors for help in determining his nonprofit’s business model and organizational structure in 2013.
There, he formed invaluable relationships with leading investors and entrepreneurs, he says.
“The i.Lab connects the networks that you’re going to need in order to succeed,” Beyer says. “I think that’s what’s so great about it—it’s a confidence builder.”
Out of the i.Lab
Here are a few recent businesses the i.Lab has thrown its support behind.
It’s an inserted birth control much like an IUD, but here’s the catch—it’s for men. Contraline believes contraception should fit seamlessly into the lives of couples, so CEO and co-founder Kevin Eisenfrats, a former student of nanomedicine engineering at UVA who is developing a nonsurgical, nonhormonal and reversible procedure known as a vastinomy, where a type of hydrogel is injected into a man’s vas deferens to block his sperm during ejaculation. The company has raised more than $3 million, and the procedure is targeted for approval in 2021.
Who knew laboratory tasting could be so delicious? Owner Audrey Reid, who holds a master’s degree in gastronomy from Boston University, combined her love of science and food to create a quality control lab for local craft breweries, wineries, cideries and distilleries. Businesses in the industry are required to test and publish their alcohol content by volume, and those operating in the area without their own mini-labs didn’t have a way to do so. That’s when Reid stepped in, also offering microbiology, sugars and water quality testing, which can drastically affect the flavor of a craft beverage.
“Big impact. Small footprint,” is the credo of this startup founded in 2017 by UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science grad Jack Ross and his brother, Michael. The duo started the agricultural technology company, called Beanstalk, to feed increasing populations with little to no food supply by way of what they call a vertical farm. The indoor-friendly farms are renewably powered to grow greens like spinach and kale in a vertical, completely contained system of nutrients and oxygenated water. Scalable and sustainable, the product reduces water usage by 95 percent and requires no pesticides.
It’s not a Band-Aid, it’s a Phoenix-Aid. This company, founded by Ashwinraj Karthikeyan of the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s class of 2018, is credited with creating the better bandage. The Phoenix-Aid is touted as a safe and cost-effective wound dressing that’s designed to prevent infection and speed up the time it takes for chronic wounds to heal. InMEDBio has a global reach, and is focusing its efforts on treating diabetic foot ulcers, especially for medically underserved and socio-economically disadvantaged populations.
What’s harder: getting an MBA or finding a job after? Founders Sarah Rambaugh and Zach Mayo, two MBA students at the Darden School of Business, created a service in 2014 to address the latter. At Relish, they help put job candidates in touch with employers by using customized networking and data analytics tools to pair a network of top job candidates with employers from across the globe. It’s like Match.com, but for hiring.—SB