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.
Reposted from the University of California Press Room.
The University of California and the Blackstone Charitable Foundation announced today (Sept. 24) the expansion of an exciting program that will equip students with more tools and resources to take their entrepreneurship and innovation to the next level. The $5 million expansion of the Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars program will give more UC campuses critical access to resources, opportunities and mentorships for students and recent graduates across disciplines and experience levels.
“As the home to entrepreneurs and researchers at the forefront of cutting-edge discoveries and technological advancements, UC is the powerful engine behind California’s global leadership on innovation,” said UC President Janet Napolitano.
“We take great pride, especially, in our efforts to break down barriers and increase opportunities for women and minority entrepreneurs. We are excited to bring LaunchPad — and its valuable resources, opportunities and network — to UC campuses to further embed the ‘startup culture’ into the fabric of our campus communities.”
UC students will be able to take advantage of LaunchPad events, coaching and an exceptional talent network to help them succeed in their entrepreneurial ventures, moving groundbreaking research out of the laboratory or classroom and into the marketplace. This program has been operating at UCLA since 2014, reaching more than 8,000 students, serving 800-plus startup ventures and facilitating more than 3,000 startup consulting meetings. Eight more UC campuses will now be able to leverage the opportunities from LaunchPad thanks to the Blackstone Charitable Foundation grant.
“With its unique network of colleges and universities, California has a rich history of fostering entrepreneurship and a bright future for the next generation of entrepreneurs,” said Jon Gray, president and chief operating officer of Blackstone. “The LaunchPad program has been transformational for students who draw on its resources to grow new businesses and invest in their communities. We are proud to partner with the University of California system in expanding this important programming to more students.”
The Blackstone Charitable Foundation established LaunchPad in 2010 and partnered with Techstars eight years later to provide participants with access to their network of more than 10,000 mentors, invitations to signature events like Startup Week and Startup Weekend, and access to world-renowned content and startup services. Blackstone LaunchPad and Techstars also help student entrepreneurs navigate the complex landscape of fundraising, job placement and recruitment. LaunchPad has achieved success across 18 campuses in the U.S. and Ireland, providing nearly 500,000 students with the access to resources, personal connections and professional networks they need to get their companies off the ground. To date, LaunchPad graduates have gone on to incorporate close to 9,000 businesses that have raised nearly $200 million in investments.
UC has a long history in innovation and entrepreneurship, helping launch iconic industries and businesses in California semiconductors, biotechnology, digital media and aerospace, among other fields. LaunchPad amplifies UC’s flourishing entrepreneurship efforts for students, which currently include 43 incubators or accelerators, numerous competitions, entrepreneurial training academies, and boot camps that support students through the startup stages of discovery, validation, commercialization and scaled growth.
The 2018 TechCrunch list recognized several UC campuses as the country’s top public universities with the highest number of alumni startup founders who have raised at least $1 million in venture investment funding. UC Berkeley and UCLA scored the top two positions respectively.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.