University of Virginia students Payam Pourtaheri and Ameer Shakeel had an idea, but no way to bring it to life.
The students had worked with pharmacology professor Mark Kester on a non-toxic spray that could degrade pesticides — the kind used on food crops — in a few hours. This process usually takes up to two weeks, so the product potentially could be useful to farmers.
Although they had the science down, Pourtaheri and Shakeel weren’t so clear on other things — selling the idea to investors, for one, seemed like a daunting task.
“Ameer and I were just scientists, so we knew nothing about business,” Pourtaheri said. “As engineers and scientists, we didn’t know how to convey our ideas in an accessible way.”
That’s why they sought out the help of Elizabeth Pyle, associate director of the university’s technology entrepreneurship program. Her first assignment to them was to give her a pitch — as if she were a potential investor — selling the merits of the spray.
“It was research oriented so it was difficult to get them to talk products and customers,” Pyle said. “They were very focused on research.”
Pyle told the student entrepreneurs to go out and meet potential customers (mostly wineries around the Charlottesville area) and to come up with a pitch that focuses on the real-world use of the spray.
Pourtaheri and Shakeel came up with a new presentation that would resonate with investors — a story about a farmer who wants to harvest his crop before an impending storm, someone who can’t wait the customary two weeks for pesticides to degrade.
To date, the students have secured almost $150,000 in funding and are working on a new venture called Agrospheres. Pourtaheri, who graduated last May, is working with Shakeel and Kester on getting the new company off the ground.
This is an example of the kind of work UVa is doing to encourage student entrepreneurs — students who are looking to turn their ideas into products.
Two of UVa’s most famous alumni entrepreneurs — Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman — didn’t have a technology entrepreneurship program to back them when they created Reddit in 2005.
Their story is more typical of young tech entrepreneurs: they began from scratch and sought out investment after graduation. After an initial rejection, they won funding from the famed Silicon Valley venture capital group Y Combinator.
But UVa administrators said they believe they can harness some of this creative energy in Charlottesville by providing ample support for students with big ideas. The Darden School of Business, for example, provides free legal help and support in its Innovation Lab.
Still, the university seemed to be missing something, said Alex Zorychta, a UVa alum who directs a student entrepreneur support community called Works in Progress.
Zorychta conducted interviews with hundreds of students and found many of them weren’t aware of the services offered at the university. More importantly, the ones who were serious about their ideas said they felt isolated at UVa.
“These students are spending 20, 30, 40 hours a week outside of class going after these projects,” he said. “They don’t feel like most people understand them.”
Zorychta has tried to keep all of the students in touch with alumni who have started companies of their own in an effort to foster mentorships.
Another one of Zorychta’s solutions has been to try to bring the entrepreneurs together by giving them a casual space to gather — a cross between a lounge and office space, where students simultaneously work on their laptops, relax on couches, bounce ideas off one another or just goof around.
After trying and failing with several different spaces, they settled on a lounge in Thornton Hall, which the students dubbed The Lighthouse because of the large windows and ample natural lighting.
Zorychta said Works in Progress has gone a long way in promoting interaction between the students. Not only do the students provide emotional support for one another, but they keep each other on track.
“We’re having peers keep each other accountable because this is what they do,” he said. “It’s kind of like having a gym buddy — if you miss one session and it’s a small enough group, they’re going to notice it.”
Among the regulars at The Lighthouse is Jared Downing, a second-year student who develops mobile phone apps. Downing said Zorychta put him in touch with the chief technology officer at WillowTree, a local app development company.
Downing said he’s also benefitted from meeting like-minded students involved in Works in Progress.
“Everyone there is super driven and they want to work hard,” Downing said. “We have fun, but we see the value in investing in ourselves in the long term.”