May 5th, 2020
More than 60 individuals from 13 Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars network schools registered to participate in the U.S. and Ireland “Unite to Fight” Techstars Virtual COVID Startup Weekends during the weekend of April 25-26. Following these events, we followed up with several LaunchPad students and one LaunchPad mentor from Syracuse University to learn more about their experience, what they learned, and what they hoped would happen next.
Sam Hollander (Syracuse University Student): I have a few different experiences and perspectives on Startup Weekends: I participated in the LaunchPad Startup Weekend at UCLA in Spring, 2019, and then was a co-facilitator and co-leader of a Techstars Startup Weekend we hosted back on Syracuse’s campus for 200+ students in Fall, 2019. Like those past weekends, I was amazed at all of the interesting and exciting ideas that came out of this event in just a couple of days.
One of the big advantages of participating in a virtual weekend, however, was that we were able to work with participants and do customer discovery and market research with contacts from all over the country. I met and connected with team members and experts I wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to. They all brought such varied insight and experiences, and that is particularly important when you’re trying to tackle a problem as complex and challenging as coronavirus. I also really enjoyed that participating in this event allowed me to break out of my daily routine. Since leaving campus, my days have gotten pretty repetitive with getting up, logging on to classes, etc. During this kind of high-energy virtual Startup Weekend I ended up working some crazy hours on a really different kind of project. So that was fun too.
The result of this distributed 54-hour collaboration? The Syracuse team came up with Global CoPower, an app integration that enables users to donate excess cell phone computing capacity to other COVID19-related efforts.
Miles Feldstein (Syracuse University Student): I think we thought of and discussed just about everything over those three days! We started by broadly exploring an all-in-one communication and coworking platform with video conferencing, group chats, and social media, but quickly refocused our attention to what technology solution might be most useful to the senior population most at risk from coronavirus.
I think we did 10-20 customer discovery calls to learn what this group wanted and needed during this time, and initially pursued a robo-call service - only to recognize that an automated communication tool might not be best for a technology-frustrated population already feeling isolated from other people. Like this idea, we kicked around several other coronavirus-related startup possibilities but kept finding the holes in each of them. One of the most interesting was pursuing a technology solution to the interrupted food supply for kids who are away from their standard school lunch program.
Finally, on Saturday night - maybe just 12 or 15 hours before the video pitch was due - we finally struck on the idea for Global CoPower.
One of the coolest ideas another team explored was a financial assistance program that would help small businesses in their application for and management of the Paycheck Protection Program.
Linda Dickerson Hartsock (Syracuse Campus Director): One of the most valuable outcomes for me was the wealth of incredibly talented, professional contacts I made during the mentor meetup on Thursday night, before the event even started. I can tell you, just in this past week, I’ve already had a number of very meaningful follow-up conversations with several of those individuals who I think are going to be able to really contribute strategically to the LaunchPad at Syracuse.
Beyond that though, it was just incredible to get to spend the weekend with these young people. Getting to observe and support their laser focus on ideation and exploration, customer discovery, and their divide-and-conquer mentality was really inspiring. And when they got to that point of sheer exhaustion on Saturday night, only then did their eureka solution emerge. They showed true tenacity, resilience, and an admirable willingness to pivot away from an exciting but imperfect idea. And I think those skills and experiences typify what is required to be a successful entrepreneur.
Miles Feldstein: I think my favorite was Cathy Bertini, the former Executive Director of the World Food Programme and Under Secretary General for Management at the United Nations. She’d also worked in for USDA, HHS, and the State Department, and spoke to us for a while about the food supply chain and how school cafeterias really serve as a distribution hub for meals to low-income populations in the U.S. She was just really engaging and I don’t think I would’ve gotten the chance to speak to someone like her without LaunchPad and this Virtual Startup Weekend.
Miles Feldstein: Another really interesting one was Ravi Bala, who we spoke to about some of the senior-population healthcare issues we explored. We also virtually met with several hospital and healthcare executives. But Ravi was really knowledgable and encouraging, and it wasn’t surprising to learn that he’s mentored at more than a dozen startup weekends.
Miles Feldstein: We are pursuing the Global CoPower idea! Definitely need to do some research to make sure it is truly viable, but after the weekend an entrepreneur who saw our final pitch video reached out to another one of our teammates (and LaunchPad participants) Matt Shumer, on LinkedIn and asked to meet to discuss how he could help make our idea a reality.
Linda Dickerson Hartsock: That’s what was so great about this opportunity. This is a guy who is really in a position to make something happen for them. He’s a serial entrepreneur, CEO, and founder of a number of healthcare-related companies and now runs a global health cooperative.
To have provided these students - and their ideas and energy -connected to someone like that through Techstars COVID Startup Weekend is just pretty awesome.