[This is part one of a two part article on Princeton University’s eLab Demo Day 2015.]
For the past several years, Princeton’s Keller Center has run a summer accelerator for startups, providing each participating team with $20,000 in seed money, a place to work, and mentoring.
The eLab accelerator’s Demo Day took place on August 11 this year, and seven teams presented to an audience of more than 200 people at the Friend Center, on the Princeton campus.
As Mung Chiang, Keller Center director said, the purpose of the program is to allow students to explore their potential as entrepreneurs and learn about the world of entrepreneurship. They also try to actually launch their startups during the 10 weeks of “toil, frustration” and caffeine. He said that Princeton is committed to strengthening entrepreneurship as part of the educational experience at the school.
Cornelia Huellstrunk, associate director, noted that the students all lived together in a dorm at the university, and participated in a series of networking sessions as well as workshops. This year’s student participants worked in the new eLab Entrepreneurial Hub, located at 34 Chambers Street, in downtown Princeton.
Huellstrunk noted that eLab is not exclusively tech-biased. “We are venture agnostic. We are not just interested in pure technology,” but in promoting social good as well.
Each team showed a two-minute video and presented for eight minutes. Then they answered questions from a “feedback team” made up of alumni and venture capitalists.
Up first was KLOS Guitars. Adam Klosowiak and Jake Sheffield presented for the team. The KLOS project was a travel guitar that they believe to be superior to other such guitars in the market. Many travel guitars are made of durable carbon fiber, which makes them very expensive. KLOS took a hybrid approach. Their guitar features a half-sized body made of carbon fiber and a full-sized neck made of mahogany.
The company has raised over $55,000 so far, between the $20,000 provided by Princeton and a Kickstarter campaign they launched. They have also presold a number of guitars through their online store. Asked by a member of the feedback team about the possibility of registering intellectual property, Klosowiak answered, “What we have is a unique combination of wood and carbon fiber, which may not be enough for a utility patent, but definitely would warrant a design patent. We are looking into that right now.” KLOS has also partnered with a veteran’s organization to sell the guitars to veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
BLOC is a social network that connects black collegians to resources, to each other, and to professionals in their fields. “Our ultimate goal,” the company said in its literature, “is to lower the black collegian unemployment rate and leverage the collective brilliance of black millennials, to advance themselves and serve their communities.” Said Achille Tenkiang, speaking for the team, “Today the black collegiate unemployment rate stands at 13.1 percent. That’s two times the national average. It’s not because we are unskilled or undereducated. … One factor that is often overlooked is the importance of social capital.” Whom you know plays a big role in the hiring process, he noted.
BLOC provides interview preparation, as well as grad-school and career coaching from academics and professionals. But, most importantly, it provides a way for black students to connect with each other and with professionals who have the same interests, and for recruiters to tap into this important source of potential employees. Tenkiang said that recruiters struggle because they have less diverse networks, and thus find it a challenge to communicate with all sectors of the market. “We are allowing hiring managers to access our rich pool of black talent,” he said.
Following BLOC to the stage was Rodeo, a social media tool that helps college students find unique events to attend while at school. Explaining the concept, the group’s video noted that “social media has event features, but there is really too much noise to find what you want. Wouldn’t it be great to connect with events that match your personality and lifestyle?”
Andrew Klutey, who spoke for the group, said the idea grew out of a shared experience that many college freshmen have. During the first few weeks on campus, they were confronted by numerous opportunities to find and try new things, but as time went on, routine settled in, social circles closed, “and exploring became hard again. … Also, the experience of being invited on Facebook seems spammy and impersonal.” Rodeo, he said, was about building a social platform that encourages exploration.
Rodeo lets users “lasso” an event, and allows friends to share events with other friends. Event organizers profit, as they get better, more engaged audiences, he said. In fact, Rodeo believes that event organizers will pay for the opportunity to use their platform, just as they now pay for posters and ads in campus newspapers.
The company, which is in its very early stage, plans to launch an Alpha trial with 50 people in the fall, and over time open the platform to the entire Princeton population. “Eventually, we will take Rodeo to state schools and urban schools, where social scenes are more dynamic.” Klutey ended by saying, “Despite the time we spend in front of our computer and phone screens, the time we spend away from those screens is more important than ever.”