LaunchPad Lift Elevates Top Student Entrepreneurs

Forming mentor relationships, fundraising, growing sales, and adding talent are just some of the accomplishments the student teams in this summer’s cohort achieved.

Seven student-led startups participated in the Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars Lift program. Although they were far from new to the entrepreneurial experience, the second cohort grew and advanced in their abilities and potential. 

Some of the teams, like Sondr, realized important milestones around rebranding, business setup, registration, and customer discovery. Others, like Antithesis and Ridesurf, developed their pitch deck, confirmed and conducted investor presentations, and even raised capital. Several teams grew brand and generated product awareness, like Aviate Audio did at an international tradeshow. Others, including ROSEN Skincare, grew revenue through a new subscription sales model. One final area of achievement was production, with three teams, like May West, building relationships with industry manufacturers.

“The Lift cohort has been incredible for Visos. In just a couple short months, we’ve made more progress than we could’ve possibly imagined,” said founder Matt Shumer. “We’ve raised initial funding, found our fit in the market, started working with potential clients, and have networked with some of the leading figures in tech. This wouldn’t have been possible without the Lift cohort, and our amazing mentors.”

The LaunchPad Lift program is a virtual cohort-based program where select student entrepreneurs receive individualized support and long-term mentorship to get their ventures further, faster. Student teams from LaunchPad campus programs are selected by a panel of Techstars and Blackstone executives. Over the course of the Lift program students are both matched with dedicated Techstars mentors based on their specific business and needs and also participate in bi-weekly Q&A calls with Techstars subject matter experts. The Q&A calls allow Techstars mentors to share their knowledge on a broad range of entrepreneurial topics, including fundraising, business structure, pricing models, sales, marketing, and more.

Students weren’t the only ones that found the program invaluable. Mentors learned from the LaunchPad student entrepreneurs and were impressed with their initiative, passion, and effort to take advantage of this unique opportunity.

Babak Kia, Lift Mentor and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Boston University, shared the following about the team he mentored: “Lift students had an incredible access to mentors, partners, and resources through the accelerator. I know that for instance as soon as Matt reached out for help on business model, product, or some other topic, the Techstars and Blackstone teams responded and delivered at an incredible pace!”

Lift participants will also get an opportunity to meet and interact with senior leaders at Blackstone. They will be able to present their business models to experienced business leaders, who will help them refine their strategies and expand their networks.

In addition to convening students and staff at world-class events like Lift or Propel, Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars helps complement existing entrepreneurship on-campus resources. LaunchPad also coordinates off-campus opportunities for schools and students to expand their reach, increase their networks, and gain first-hand knowledge on entrepreneurship. More than 700,000 college students around the world have the opportunity to participate in LaunchPad, providing them with access to industry-leading mentors, vast networks of business experts, and the experience, skills, and brands of Blackstone and Techstars.








LaunchPad Lift Spotlight: Aviate Audio

Highlights of student-led ventures participating in LaunchPad Lift, part of the Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars entrepreneurship program.

It was late one night in the winter of 2017. A blizzard raged outside, but the windowless engineering lab at the University at Buffalo provided a peaceful haven from the storm. After months of research and experimentation in their lab, Shane Nolan and Ryan Jaquin finally had a breakthrough and created something new. Airpatch was born—a small, wireless device that lets guitar players control their pedals and musical effects with the touch of a finger, expanding the functionality of the electric guitar. 

Airpatch brings together Shane and Ryan’s passions for music and technology. As longtime musicians, they were looking for musical applications for their school electrical engineering project. Airpatch was the answer, and with this initial piece of technology, they founded Aviate Audio

Shane, Ryan, and their team started out as electrical engineers at the University of Buffalo, but with the support of their startup community, they have become entrepreneurs. Aviate Audio has already won first or second place in several competitions, including the UB Panasci Technology Entrepreneurship Competition, NYS Business Plan Competition, Buffalo Bright, and UB Bulls Launch.

Since beginning the Blackstone Launchpad powered by Techstars Lift program, Aviate has been paired with Techstars mentor Vadim Gordin

“The Lift program has been extremely meaningful to our team,” said Shane. “There have been real results, impacting our operations such as a major decision to bring our product assembly and quality assurance in-house as a result of the advisement of our mentor. This is leading us on a path to delivering a higher quality product with less capital.”

Shane and Ryan have found many parallels between entrepreneurship and music. Both require growing your audience, and they have found a similar energy, grounded in creativity and passion, in the joy of making something from nothing.

During their participation in the LaunchPad Lift program, Aviate Audio has successfully achieved a number of important goals. They launched a crowdfunding campaign, exceeded their goal, and got some great press around their product and company. They are also making a public product debut at the National Association of Music Merchants trade show in Nashville, TN—and they point to critical guidance from their mentor, Vadim, for putting them on this path. 

“What’s most important to our team is the connections we are making in the program,” said Ryan. “We are excited that connections with the Lift cohort and the broad Techstars and Blackstone communities will continue to support valuable outcomes for our company long after this Lift cohort ends.”

Shane and Ryan happily report that creating a music products company is fulfilling both the musical and professional dreams of the team.








LaunchPad Lift Spotlight: Ridesurf

Highlights of student-led ventures participating in LaunchPad Lift, part of the Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars entrepreneurship program.

Eliecer Vera hated the long drives he made several times a month from the University of Central Florida in Orlando, where he was a student, to see his family in Miami. Gas and tolls added up, and he got bored and lonely on the road by himself. A few years before, he had lived in Germany, where he often used a long-distance carpooling app that let drivers sell the empty seats in their cars on road trips. He was frustrated that no such service existed in the United States. 

Breezy Baldwin had also traveled through Europe and used the same service. She missed it when she returned to the U.S. as well. 

Both Breezy and Eliecer developed their own long-distance carpooling apps in order to fill what they each saw as an obvious need. When they met at school, they merged their companies into Ridesurf.

In Europe, there are 70 million active users on long-distance carpooling applications. Europeans embraced this form of ridesharing years ago—in part due to higher gas prices, but also due to a more communal mindset and an earlier commitment to reducing carbon emissions. In the U.S., Airbnb, Lyft, and Uber have paved the way for change, proving that Americans also desire app-based sharing services that make life easier and more affordable. 

When the current Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars Lift program began, both Eliecer and Breezy had just transitioned to working full-time on Ridesurf—and had moved to opposite sides of the country (Miami and Los Angeles, respectively). Lift paired the Ridesurf team with mentor Andrea Perdomo, formerly the Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Revolar (Techstars Retail 2016).

Participating in LaunchPad Lift instantly improved our focus and determination by providing us with a structured schedule, a mentor, and accountability, not to mention the great bi-weekly talks which improved our organization, goal setting, marketing plan, and fundraising plans,” said Elicier. “Beth Blecherman’s marketing talk was fantastic.”

Recognizing the importance of using team management software to set weekly goals and review outcomes has helped the co-founders release their MVP mobile app in the app store on schedule in mid-July. In addition, the team was able to develop a fundraising and marketing plan to be implemented in the coming weeks.

“Being entrepreneurs, to us, means finding a significant problem nobody is solving, and then solving it in the most socially conscience, eco-friendly, and inclusive way possible, said Breezy. “For us, that problem is the lack of a safe and easy way to sell the empty seats in our cars on long distance drives or drives to concerts, festivals, and conferences—places where lots of people are going.” 

The co-founders are particularly excited about the prospect of solving a market problem that will also have a positive environmental and socioeconomic impact—two of their main passions.

“We’re so excited to get the word out about Ridesurf and help people reduce their carbon footprint,” Elicier said. “We couldn’t have launched so quickly without the help of the Lift Cohort.”








LaunchPad Lift Spotlight: May West

Highlights of student-led ventures participating in LaunchPad Lift, part of the Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars entrepreneurship program.

Back in 2015, Charlotte Sullivan was weeding a perennial bed at the Queens County Farm Museum, an historic urban farm in Queens, New York when she began to wonder whether the milkweed, usually thought of as a weed, could be cultivated as a useful crop. If so, what could be done with the raw material—the milkweed floss? To help answer this question, Charlotte enlisted the expertise of Alayna Rasile, a textile artist, product designer, and Montana State University MFA student.

Together, Charlotte and Alayna discovered that milkweed floss has incredible thermal properties and a fascinating historical legacy. The more they researched the plant, the more fixated they became on the ecological implications of milkweed as well. Milkweed is the host plant for the monarch butterfly, a beautiful and beloved insect as well as an important pollinator species that is on the decline. They learned that an additional 1.8 billion milkweed plants would be needed in North America to bring the monarch butterfly population back to a sustainable size. Clearly, milkweed does have value.

Charlotte and Alayna spent several years of research and development in their respective fields of organic agriculture and art and design, and they arrived at a jacket design that uses milkweed floss as insulation, and they founded May West. By creating a market demand for milkweed, May West helps fulfill the monarch’s need for food and habitat while simultaneously creating a sustainable fashion alternative to a wardrobe staple. 

“Being a student entrepreneur means that I have the luxury to take risks, and be bold and adventurous with the launch of the startup,” said Alayna. “But it also means that I am spread extremely thin and need to be resourceful and creative with how to accomplish goals.”

With the help of the Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars Lift program, May West has spent the summer strategizing their first jacket production run, scheduled for later this fall. Charlotte and Alayna have been matched with Techstars mentor (and Austin Accelerator ‘18 alum) Andrew Gibbs-Dabney of Livsn Designs to help them grow their company.

“Through the LaunchPad, we’ve been able to connect with a network of thoughtful mentors with a diverse range of expertise and advice,” said Charlotte. “The ‘Give First’ mentality of the Techstars mentors, alumni, and staff allowed us to leave the Lift cohort equipped with an expanded network of generous, willing-to-assist industry professionals. Their support will be invaluable as May West continues to evolve and grow.”

May West embodies a value system that places importance on new manufactured products being regenerative rather than destructive in the process of their creation. The brand exemplifies how designers can consider the needs of other living things, both in their supply chain and in manufacturing decision making.








LaunchPad Lift Spotlight: Antithesis Foods

Highlights of student-led ventures participating in LaunchPad Lift, part of the Blackstone LaunchPad® powered by Techstars® entrepreneurship program.

Sure, students love snacks. But when a group of food scientist students at Cornell couldn’t stop eating their school project, they knew they were onto something special. Grabanzos, a crunchy, chickpea-based chocolate snack—with the added benefits of more protein and fiber and fewer calories than anything else on the market—won Jason Goodman, Ashton Yoon, and Philip Kim their class competition. After their initial success, they decided they had to bring it to the public. The team named their company Antithesis Foods, because they want to take a different, science-based approach to food development.

“To me, entrepreneurship is about ‘going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm’,” said Jason, quoting an old saying. “It means you find great joy on working through big problems, regardless of the pain, anxiety, and sleepless nights.”

As a PhD student at Cornell, Jason first got involved in the LaunchPad program on campus in spring 2018. He and his two teammates have found Antithesis to be instrumental in setting them up for success, in particular due to the connections with other student teams and networking with consumer packaged goods experts from outside their school’s existing program. These kinds of industry-specific experienced mentors are helping Antithesis narrow the endless list of to-do’s so that they can maintain focus on the most critical metrics early stage investors are looking for and mitigate risks in the right parts of the business.

Jason also appreciates the sense of community that Lift provides. “Just hearing the issues that other teams are having as they grow their companies lets us know that we’re not alone! Everyone is struggling with the same problems, whether they’re fundraising, effective marketing, scaling, or ensuring product-market fit,” he said. “Running a startup can often be isolating, so the community is especially helpful, particularly at this early stage of our venture.”

Jason and his team members are aiming to achieve two major goals by the end of the eight-week virtual program: development of a fundraising pitch deck and identification of several measurable KPIs.

To assist with the development of company pitch decks, Techstars Managing Partner Mark Solon coached the founding teams during week three of the program about the relationship components of fundraising. He also encouraged teams like Antithesis to focus on investors with existing experience in an industry ecosystem. These investors, Mark explained, will require less education and be able to understand the problem and solution much faster.

As for Antithesis’ objective to structure a framework of metrics and KPIs for Seed/Series A pitches, Jason and his team members recognize the importance of collecting and presenting data investors care about. They are constructing experiments to answer questions about the cost of customer acquisition, marketing ROI, and more, in order to collect meaningful data.

“Having the mentors and experts who know what questions to ask is invaluable, and we’re thrilled to have the opportunity to work with them,” Jason said.








LaunchPad Lift Spotlight: ROSEN

Highlights of student-led ventures participating in LaunchPad Lift, part of the Blackstone LaunchPad® powered by Techstars® entrepreneurship program.

If you’re between the ages of 12 and 24, you probably suffer from skin breakouts—85% of us do, and many are frustrated by the limited and potentially harmful synthetic options for skincare treatment. ROSEN founder Jamika Martin wants to help. The five or six legacy brands that create benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid washes and alcohol based toners primarily compete on price, but Jamika has a different angle: offering acne-prone customers a cleaner, more natural, and more thoughtful skincare line.

“To me, being an entrepreneur means just going for it,” said Jamika. “It means you create a real solution to an even realer problem, and you don’t let anyone stop you until the problem has been fixed. As I’ve heard tons of times, everyone has an idea, but actually pursuing it is what I think makes someone an entrepreneur.”

Jamika graduated from UCLA in June of 2017 with a degree in business economics, and her commitment to making this business a success is unmistakable. She knows participation in LaunchPad Lift is providing her with opportunities she doesn’t have through her own networks, and may not be able to find anywhere else.

According to Jamika, “I don’t come from a well connected family or area, so one thing LaunchPad has shown me is the power of network. This program has broadened my connections, opportunities, and teachings. I’ve already learned so much from my amazing mentors and received invaluable insights on my business. LaunchPad Lift will only further enrich my business and my network.”

Since the beginning of the program, she has been working with Sathish Naadimuthu, a Techstars mentor with plenty of experience founding businesses and a keen eye for startup marketing, branding, and positioning. Jamika’s program goals are focused on improving the results of her digital marketing efforts, including Facebook and Google Ads. Based in part on suggestions from her mentor, Jamika is also exploring a subscription-based web sales model—something she hadn’t considered before the program.

“The mentors and connections within the LaunchPad network gives entrepreneurs a completely different (and experienced) perspectives to their strategies and businesses,” said Jamika.








LaunchPad Lift Spotlight: Sondr

Highlights of student-led ventures participating in LaunchPad Lift, part of the Blackstone LaunchPad® powered by Techstars® entrepreneurship program.

Who better to share the lesser known—and best—parts of a place then a local? That’s the idea behind Sondr, which aims to leverage economically disconnected youth as “ambassadors” to share their local knowledge. (Sure a guidebook can list restaurants, but someone who grew up in Philly is more likely to know the best chili cheese steak sandwich, right?) This unique lens creates an interesting and immersive opportunity for visitors to see and know a city. Keiarra Ortiz-Cedeño and her five teammates originally founded Sondr to compete for the internationally known Hult Prize, and they remain convinced that this business can bring people together through shared experiences and shift the way participants think, taking visitors and ambassadors from “us and them” to “we.”

Keiarra believes in the power of business to change society for the better: “As entrepreneurs, when we see an issue, we take action and figure out innovative solutions to those problems. We envision a future where individuals can share their passions and unique narrative of the city with anyone who is willing to listen and wants to experience the city at a deeper, more personal level.”

For the Sondr team, the most valuable component of the Lift program has been their interactions with Techstars mentors. Their team mentor, Susie Kim, as well as the presenters in biweekly calls, have all provided them with critical instruction on goal-setting and fundraising, among other topics.

“This knowledge enabled us to set more concrete goals and more realistic timelines that can feasibly be followed,” said Keiarra. “We have also conducted in-depth interviews to understand exactly what our customers want after learning the importance of market validation and the insights that could be derived from that.”

In addition to the benefit of mentor-led instruction and access to the valuable resources and networks of Techstars and Blackstone, Lift student teams receive $10,000 upon completion of the program, to further grow and build their business. Sondr’s goals for the 8-week program are focused primarily on marketing (and have already included a branding and name change!) as well as critical customer exploration. They hope to run pilots and launch their new platform by mid-August.








LaunchPad Lift Student Business Spotlight: Visos

Highlights of student-led ventures participating in LaunchPad Lift, part of the Blackstone LaunchPad® powered by Techstars® entrepreneurship program.

Many years ago when Matt Shumer, founder and CEO of Visos, first experienced virtual reality (VR) he immediately knew that this fledgling technology would change the world. Today he is leading a startup building the world’s most powerful standalone virtual reality headset, and his company is one of seven in the current Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars Lift program.

Back then, Matt saved up to purchase an Oculus Rift and the parts to build a PC that could run it. He shared it with his friends every chance he got. However, he quickly recognized some significant challenges including software glitches, slow processing, hardware design issues, etc. After considerable research, Matt founded Visos to try to solve some of these issues and create a consumer headset focused on ease-of-use and convenience. He’s since pivoted—as startups often do—to building a next-generation standalone headset, designed for enterprise use. The opportunity Matt has identified enables companies and organizations to train employees faster and more efficiently, improve safety in high-risk situations, design better products, improve healthcare, and much more.

As a serial entrepreneur—Matt has been starting companies since the age of 12—he recognizes both the challenge and the excitement of this lifestyle. “Throughout all of these ventures, one thing has stayed constant: my passion,” Matt said. “Being an entrepreneur is not a job you can do halfway—if you’re in, you’re all in. It’s something you eat, sleep, and breathe.”

Matt is currently a sophomore at Syracuse University, studying entrepreneurship in the Whitman School of Management, and working on his venture through his campus program, the Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars at Syracuse University Libraries. After being selected for the second 2019 Lift cohort, he was assigned a Mentor: Babak Kia. A team-focused mentor is just one of the benefits that students of this 8-week virtual program receive. They also gain access to the wider Blackstone and Techstars networks of experts and advisors, content resources, talent network, and instruction on topics critical to startups including goal setting, product development and roadmapping, and more. In true entrepreneurial fashion, Matt is making as much use as possible of these new networks: he asked for and got the opportunity to discuss fundraising and sales strategies with Techstars Founder and Co-CEO David Cohen.

“Beyond the growth opportunities the program has afforded us, the speakers we’ve had a chance to listen to and learn from have been nothing short of amazing, and the connections the Techstars network offers have helped us immensely,” Matt said. “LaunchPad Lift has truly been a company-changing experience. Without a doubt, we wouldn’t be on the trajectory we’re currently on without it. I can’t wait for the rest of the program, and for the inevitable progress that will come with it!”

Matt’s goals during the Lift program involve learning as much as possible about his target market and gaining a better understanding of what they’re looking for—and what their current solutions lack. Having spoken with dozens of companies, ranging from small businesses to some of the largest companies in the world, Visos has now partnered with future beta-testers who are interested in the headset for training, education, medical uses, and more.








Bee Well. Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars Spotlight: Combplex Aims to Help Beekeepers Save the Hives

Highlights of student-led ventures participating in the LaunchPad Lift Cohort, part of the Blackstone LaunchPad® powered by Techstars® entrepreneurship program

It’s getting harder each day to be a honeybee.

Buzzing around pollinating our global food production is the fun part, but on the other side, these insects are fighting for their lives and dying at an alarming rate due to pesticide exposure, novel pathogens, and parasites called Varroa destructor—a giant tick that feeds on bees, spreading deadly viruses that can kill or greatly weaken colonies.

This increasing demise of colonies matters to humans because one-third of all food grown in the U.S. is dependent on pollination from bees. And the majority of bees responsible for pollinating these domestic crops—2.5 million colonies—come from managed beehives, according to California’s Managed Pollinator Protection Plan. In the last 10 years beekeepers have reported up to 40 percent of annual colony losses, according to the Bee Informed Partnership.

In the effort to help beekeepers, two Ph.D. students from Cornell University, Hailey Scofield and Nathan Oakes, leveraged their honeybee research, data science, and electrical engineering expertise to assist colony managers and develop a new approach to fighting parasites.

Combplex is a smart frame that helps eliminate parasites and remotely monitors bee health in a hive. Their new approach aims to eliminate the harmful Varroa destructor parasites within the hive without the need to use harmful chemicals traditionally used against these bee killers.

“We are in the prototyping stage. We are in the process of launching a field trial in South Carolina in April before a large-scale field test with commercial beekeepers in up-state New York over the summer and fall,” said Hailey and Nathan.

Combplex was selected for the inaugural LaunchPad Lift Cohort, a 10-week personalized mentorship-driven program for student-led ventures, which comes with a $10,000 grant upon completion of the program to help founders move their businesses forward.

Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars has been so influential in expanding our horizons as founders,” said Hailey and Nathan. “As scientists we tend to focus on the product, research, and vision. The LaunchPad program has provided personalized mentorship to help us build out aspects of the business, such as our brand, team, and the steps we need to take to reach our goals.”

Learn more about LaunchPad HERE

Follow our LaunchPad Lift Cohort series where we highlight each student-led venture.








Manage Anxiety On-The-Go: Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars Spotlight on CALM Neurotech Device

Highlights of student-led ventures participating in the LaunchPad Lift Cohort, part of the Blackstone LaunchPad® powered by Techstars® entrepreneurship program.

These days, Americans are feeling more anxious than ever. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1 percent of the population each year.” Without treatment or engaging in stress-reducing activities, feelings of anxiety can impact quality of life, job performance, and even your health.

A student-led venture from Temple University’s Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars entrepreneurship program has developed CALM, which uses neurotechnology to treat anxiety. CALM (Compact Anxiolytic Lull Mechanism) is a portable, non-invasive device that uses pulses of vibrations to alter the brain waves that influence anxiety, and help people regain control of stress levels

When a person feels intense stress or anxiety, she places CALM behind her ear, at the base of her skull. From there, CALM sends pulses of vibrational stimulation to the inner ear through bone conduction, which allows the brain to receive the signals. These pulses influence the user’s brain waves, creating a calm brain state, with wave patterns similar to those created by relaxation and meditation.

Daniel Couser, Founder of CALM, was inspired to develop this device for a friend who suffered from anxiety disorder. He saw first hand how this mental illness can impact a person’s life.

“Anxiety can be debilitating.  Being close to the issue urged me explore new and different ways to approach anxiety, resulting in the development of CALM,” Daniel said. “CALM provides a fast acting tool that can be used by individuals to better manage anxiety at home, work, school, or anywhere else that a person may go.”

Daniel reports that they are planning to conduct proof of concept testing in the first quarter of 2019, in clinics with individuals that suffer from anxiety disorders. This preliminary research will help them further develop the device, better understand the needs of people struggling with anxiety, and formulate next steps for research.

CALM was selected for the inaugural LaunchPad Lift Cohort, a 10-week personalized mentorship-driven program for student-led ventures from the United States and Ireland, as well as a $10,000 grant to help move their business forward.

“Through the Launchpad Lift Cohort, I am looking forward to connecting with high-caliber mentors and refining the execution strategy of the business, as well as learning how to run an efficient business,” Daniel said. “Being able to learn from entrepreneurs who have built successful businesses as well as the founders from the other companies in the cohort will help CALM to excel, and assist us in our mission to provide a new tool to help manage anxiety.”

Learn more about LaunchPad HERE

Follow our LaunchPad Lift Cohort series where we highlight each student-led venture.