Out of nearly 100 student entrepreneurial teams from schools across the U.S. and Ireland, Credit Starter, Cllctve, and Eat Makhana rose above the rest and won in the 2019 Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars Propel pitch competition. Judges from organizations including Blackstone, Techstars, and Shutterstock evaluated ventures on business model/viability, team strength, and presentation quality.
“Of course innovation, resilience, and drive are important characteristics of the student founders we want to support and cultivate,” said Blackstone Charitable Foundation executive director Amy Stursberg, “But what really impressed us this year, was the ingenious solutions these young entrepreneurs are developing to address problems their own fellow students struggle with!”
2019 LaunchPad Propel winning businesses included:
1st Place: Credit Starter, founded by Michael Broughton at USC is working to overcome the obstacle of developing a positive credit history as a young person. While predatory practices of credit card companies can present real risk to students long term, Michael has recognized that safer and commonly repeated payments (including student tuition, gym memberships, and streaming entertainment bills) can be utilized to help students build credit.
2nd Place: Cllctve. After struggling to balance her own successful creative content development work with the demands of school, Cllctve cofounder and Syracuse University student Kelsy Davis is developing an online marketplace to efficiently connect other young creators with companies needing talent. Cllctve re-positions brands for success, while simultaneously nurturing the freelance community on college campuses across the country.
3rd Place: Eat Makhana. Mallika Chawla, Amruta Gadgil, and Vineet Sinha, alumni of the University of California, Berkeley are on their own mission to help fellow students stay healthy by offering delicious, nutritious, allergy-friendly foods from popped water lily seeds. Based on a snack common in her childhood home in India, these young entrepreneurs have also taken an innovative approach to the widely recognized challenge of breaking into the grocery store aisle – successfully targeting corporate cafeteria and snack rooms.
“The GiveFirst philosophy is ingrained in everything we do at Techstars – from our mentorship driven Accelerators to our university-focused LaunchPad partnership with Blackstone,” said Techstars founder David Cohen. “It is incredibly exciting to see the college students involved in this network so naturally developing businesses that help their fellow students out.”
In addition to the annual Propel event in New York each fall, LaunchPad also offers Lift and Startup Weekend. Lift, offered in the spring and summer, is a 10-week, virtual, mentorship-driven cohort program that take student teams from any of the 20+ LaunchPad campuses to the next level. LaunchPad Startup Weekends are where ideas are sparked and new companies are formed and take place at many of the LaunchPad college campuses throughout the year.
For more information about the LaunchPad network and to get your campus involved, please visit www.blackstonelaunchpad.org.
In 2014 AJ Damiano was a freshman at Syracuse University and an avid gamer. He started PowerSpike with cofounder and fellow students Michael Paris and Eric Rice based on an opportunity he’d observed working for another startup focused on Twitch-hosted, esports competitions. The issue he identified was fluctuating (and insufficient) revenue generation for gaming users and content creators based on inconsistent donations, advertising, and sponsorships. Looking at more traditional brands and advertising models, AJ believed he could develop a technology solution to this problem.
Early Competition Winnings
With a team of developers experienced in gaming and esports, AJ and his team created PowerSpike, a media buying and analytics solution for esports communities and gaming influencers. While making some early progress, the business was initially totally funded off of winnings from business plan competitions. (Over four years, PowerSpike won nearly $50,000 in these competitions!)
“I couldn’t speak more highly of the LaunchPad network,” said AJ. “For us, it played a pivotal role in the early stages of PowerSpike, giving us mentorship and coaching advice, business plan competition funding – but also validation, which was desperately needed to motivate us when there were lots of reasons to give up.”
While many students come to their campus LaunchPad independently, the early successes in school and local competitions, and obvious extraordinary potential of AJ and his team meant Syracuse LaunchPad Director, Linda Harstock proactively sought them out. Her approach from the beginning was to identify ways to help the students and add value. At different times that meant making introductions to advisors on and off campus, connecting the team to potential clients and customers, and mentoring them around specific obstacles and opportunities.
According to AJ, “The great thing about the Syracuse LaunchPad being based in Bird Library, which is in the heart of the university, is that you can access resources across campus – so with Linda’s help, we met critically important people from the business school, media school, I-school, and more all of whom have helped us succeed in one way or other.”
Techstars Atlanta Accelerator
By his graduation in May of 2019, AJ and his cofounders had closed his initial round of funding, raising around $500,000 from the Dorm Room Fund, The Sixers Innovation Lab Crafted by Kimball, and Techstars Atlanta in partnership with Cox Enterprises. AJ’s team completed the Atlanta Techstars Accelerator program in the summer of 2019.
“The funny thing is that I initially met Michael Cohn, the Managing Director of Techstars Atlanta, at a Blackstone-organized event in 2018!” AJ continued, “We kept in touch and built a relationship with each other over the next eight months, so when it came time to apply for that Accelerator, it was a very easy application process.”
Some of the most important elements of that Accelerator experience, according to AJ, were the sense of community that developed with other founders (who become lifelong friends), the network of mentors he gained, and the clearer understanding of the core problem PowerSpike was solving. Initially the team thought brands wanted tools to manage influencer marketing internally. What they realized, however, was that actually brands don’t want a tool! Instead they want to simply outsource that process and get the results, just like any other media channel.
Future for PowerSpike
With a team of eight full time employees today, and a pending injection of significant capital, PowerSpike is preparing for a major hiring push during the remainder of 2019 through 2020. AJ expects by the end of next year to have a team of 30 with key hires in product development, design, talent, and even operations. Together, their goal for the next 12-18 months will be to bring more sponsorship opportunities to more creators across different platforms, ultimately helping streamers make content creation their full time career. To stay up to date on the latest PowerSpike developments, AJ recommends people follow the company on Twitter and LinkedIn and watch for exciting job opportunities on their careers page.
AJ’s Advice for Student Entrepreneurs:
- Take care of yourself. Founder moods and outlook is often tied to the highs and lows of entrepreneurship. Find time to do whatever keeps you well – exercise, meditation, therapy, personal coaching, etc.
- Keeping pushing. When things aren’t going well, it is easy to give up, and that’s what most people do. But eventually, if you push hard enough, something is going to give and that is where you’ll get an opportunity most people will have missed out on.
- If your back is against the wall, play offense. (Based on AJ’s experience playing World of Warcraft, he’s found this lesson extends to business!) Making overly cautious decisions in the game’s “arena matches” when his team was in hard-pressed situations, extended the competition, but nearly always still ultimately led to a loss. Alternatively, when the team went unexpectedly offensive in these situations instead of just trying to draw out the match, he’d win about 40% of the time, “and that’s a hell of a lot better than 0 percent!”
On the heels of announcing headline speakers from Plated, The Muse, and Warby Parker, industry leading entrepreneurs from Shutterstock, Upsie, M.M.LaFleur and more have also committed to participating as mentors, presenters, and judges at the Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars Propel this November.
In addition to a keynote session co-hosted by Blackstone President and COO Jon Gray and Techstars co-founder and Managing Partner David Cohen, students entrepreneurs will also participate in an accelerator-style ‘mentor madness’ session. Propel attendees will learn from enlightening breakout presentations and participate in a business plan pitch competition in which the winners will receive more than $20,000 in cash and prizes.
Student business competition winners will also receive an invitation to join LaunchPad Lift. Running its third cohort in the spring of 2019, Lift is a virtual, mentorship-driven program aimed at taking student-led ventures to the next level and preparing them for their next major milestone—be that launching products or services, landing sales contracts, or raising funding.
Newly announced LaunchPad Propel mentors, presenters, and judges include:
- Clarence Bethea, Founder and CEO of Upsie and Techstars Accelerator Alum (Presenter and Pitch Competition Judge)
- Narie Foster, Co-Founder of M.M.LaFleur, and Entrepreneur in Residence at the MIT NYC Startup Studio (Presenter)
- Dan Fradin, Founder of Impact Wrap and Operating Partner of Whitecap Enterprises (Presenter)
- Kelly Fryer, Program Director of the Barclays Accelerator, powered by Techstars in New York (Pitch Competition Judge)
- Ali Goldstein Norup, Founder and CEO at kpiReady, Co-Founder of GDPRsimple, and Techstars Accelerator Alum (Presenter)
- Jon Oringer, Founder and CEO, Shutterstock (Pitch Competition Judge)
- Laura Weidman Powers, Head of Impact, Echoing Green (Pitch Competition Judge)
In addition to entrepreneurs and executives, a number of Techstars Accelerator managing directors and program managers—the people who give intensive support to dozens of startups in accelerator programs each year—will be leading breakouts and mentoring students. These individuals include:
- Jenny Fielding, Managing Director of Techstars NYC
- Amos Schwartzfarb, Managing Director of Techstars Austin
Propel will take place November 7th and 8th in New York city. Students and schools interested in bringing the LaunchPad network to their campus can visit www.blackstonelaunchpad.org.
Leading Student Entrepreneurs to Pitch and Meet Founder Mentors at 3rd Annual Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars Convening
The Blackstone Charitable Foundation and Techstars have announced headline speakers for its annual convening called Propel, an innovative program that brings together more than 200 exceptional student entrepreneurs from across the LaunchPad network. Student participants at the event will hear from world-class speakers including Jon Gray, Blackstone president and chief operating officer, Josh Hix, Plated co-founder, Kathryn Minshew, co-founder of The Muse, and Neil Blumenthal, who co-founded Warby Parker while in school.
During the two-day event, student teams will have a chance to pitch their business before a panel of judges in order to win $20,000 in cash and prizes to accelerate their ventures’ growth. Attendees will also learn critical lessons, build technical skills and grow their networks as they hear from notable speakers, including a live Give First podcast recording with Techstars co-founder and Managing Partner David Cohen.
“Universities provide students with the foundational knowledge and skills necessary to start a business,” said Amy Stursberg, executive director of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation. “LaunchPad accelerates student entrepreneurs’ growth by expanding their networks and providing access to founders and other business leaders to help students think more creatively, take more calculated risks, and thrive.”
“These speakers were hand selected for their experience, insight, and expertise in early-stage startup strategy, as well as their commitment to helping the next generation of young entrepreneurs,” said David Cohen, founder and managing partner of Techstars. “We couldn’t be more proud of the determination and creativity of the students in our LaunchPad network, and we are deeply committed to providing them the resources and relationships necessary for them to succeed.”
Neil Blumenthal is a co-founder and co-CEO of Warby Parker, a lifestyle brand that offers designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially conscious businesses. Since day one, over five million pairs of glasses have been distributed through its Buy a Pair, Give a Pair program. Warby Parker was previously named the most innovative company in the world by Fast Company. Neil was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company.
Josh Hix co-founded meal delivery service Plated in 2012 at the age of 30. He and Nick Taranto took their company through the Techstars NYC Accelerator, appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank, and eventually became the hit show’s largest exit following a sale to Albertson’s in 2017.
Kathryn Minshew co-founded The Muse, an online career platform that matches people with jobs/companies based on the strength of their company culture and employee experience, in 2011. Today the Muse is used by 75 million people per year, it has been named to Fast Company’s “World’s Most Innovative Companies” list, and Kathryn has been included in Inc magazine’s “Female Founder 100”.
Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars is an entrepreneurial network that helps students succeed in entrepreneurship and in their careers. Available to more than 700,000 students at over 20 campuses globally, LaunchPad is open to all students and recent alumni, regardless of major or discipline. Since the program’s inception, the companies founded at LaunchPad schools have collectively raised $193 million in capital and generated more than $90 million in revenue.
Propel will take place November 7–8, 2019 in NYC. Students and schools interested in bringing the LaunchPad network to their campus can visit www.blackstonelaunchpad.org.
LaunchPad Campuses Submit Up to Four Teams for 3rd Annual Program by September 20th.
Nominations for Propel, a 2-day student entrepreneurial event convening in New York City this November, have opened for the 25+ schools around the world in the Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars network. The program focuses on building mentor connections, providing in-depth entrepreneurial skill-building workshops, and fostering peer learning. Propel helps over 200 students with early-stage ventures further develop and refine their ideas and business models.
Day One of the event begins with a “mentor madness” session where student teams rotate through advising meetings with over 50 business and industry experts from the Blackstone and Techstars networks. Speed dating for entrepreneurs! Day Two begins with Jon Gray, President and COO of Blackstone, saying a few words to students before they participate in breakout workshops led by experienced entrepreneurs and industry professionals covering topics such as marketing, sales, fundraising, and more.
According to Hailey Schofield, 2018 Propel participant, “While all of our mentor madness conversations were very helpful, two in particular seemed like really significant meetings. With these, it felt like we had met exactly the people we didn’t know we were looking for but needed to connect with as soon as possible. I am so excited to be establishing a real relationship that is only possible because of the Blackstone and Techstars network.”
Throughout Propel, the leading teams accepted from each LaunchPad school will also be pitching their business ideas to a live audience and Blackstone and Techstars judges. The competition will culminate in one team being awarded a $10,000 prize, in-kind support services, and a guaranteed spot in this spring’s LaunchPad Lift cohort.
“This event is one of the best ways for LaunchPad campuses to showcase their student ventures and for student founders to practice pitching in front of a large audience,” said Erica Lock, Vice President with the Blackstone Charitable Foundation. “Every year we look forward to seeing what market solutions these LaunchPad students have come up with – and then provide them with unparalleled access to the Blackstone and Techstars networks of experts. More than the advice itself, the relationships that they build at events like this are critical to future success in their ventures and careers.”
While students are participating in Propel mentoring and workshops, LaunchPad Program Directors from each campus will attend education, training, and general sessions to share best practices and find opportunities for future collaboration.
Criteria and Process to Nominate:
- Students entrepreneurs attending Propel must come from Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars campuses. (To learn more about LaunchPad and how your campus can join the network, please click here.)
- Up to four student teams, and ten students total, are invited to participate from each school.
- Student ventures should be in the early stage phase, with at least some development of their idea, including an elevator pitch and funder deck, and should also have received some coaching or services from their institution’s LaunchPad program.