Incoming and outgoing startups meet at inaugural Veterans Future Lab summit

James hendon speaks at VFL event

James Hendon, Director of the NYU Tandon Veterans Future lab

The New York City home of software company SAP was an apt location for the first NYU Tandon Veterans Future Lab Summit. The event, at the company’s 48th floor office in the new Hudson Yards complex on New York’s West Side, offered vistas of the city and views to the horizon. Indeed, if the event had a central theme it was that the sky’s the limit for entrepreneurs who follow higher ideals, stay true to their vision, and patiently pursue their goals.

The summit marked the graduation of the first cohort of the year-long Apex incubator program for early-stage ventures launched by veterans or their spouses and members of the U.S. Department of Defense. In his welcome remarks, James Hendon, director of the VFL, pointed out that 22 companies are currently active at the VFL space in Brooklyn’s Industry City. “It’s a great representation of who we are,” he said, adding that the purpose of the event, which included demos by 11 incoming and graduating Apex startups, a panel discussion, and fireside chat, as well as a chance to network, was to provide wisdom to veterans finishing the first year of program and inspiration to those just starting.

Steven Kuyan, managing director of the Future Labs at NYU Tandon, of which the VFL is a constituent, offered a nod to Future Labs General Manager Craig Wilson, who had helped shape the VFL from its inception. “’What did the Future Labs have to offer current and future veteran founders,’ Craig and I wondered,” Kuyan recalled. Those early brainstorming sessions led to careful consideration of how to transfer the existing entrepreneurship curriculums and incubation programs from NYU and the Future Labs. “Ultimately, we developed a version of a graduate entrepreneurship class into VET, the Veterans Entrepreneurship Training program, and a one-year incubator, based on the Future Labs' longest running incubator, Next Round.” 

Kuyan also thanked New York State Assembly member Joseph Lentol for his support of the Future Labs’ veteran programs since their inception.

Todd Connor, CEO and Founder of Bunker Labs, a national entrepreneurship organization dedicated to helping military veterans and spouses start and grow businesses, said one’s mission and and a greater purpose (versus just making money) create real possibilities.

Conner, a U.S. Navy veteran who is also the founder and principal of The Collective Academy, Commissioner of the Cook County Commission on Human Rights, and a 2016 Presidential Leadership Scholar, said that when one particular challenge for veterans is post-military identify. “When you take off the uniform you often leave behind a sense of purpose, of belonging, of mission and ambition.”

He exhorted the audience of Apex grads and incoming entrepreneurs to practice strategic patience in the context of starting businesses. In colloquial English: don’t quit your day job just because you have a great idea.

“The best entrepreneurs are cautious,” he said. “Steve Jobs was making money before he took the leap to go into Apple.” He exhorted attendees to think of entrepreneurship not as a pursuit of money, but as an invitation to take creative and specific ideas and make them reality. “Money is the lagging indicator not the leading indicator. If you are committed to solving a problem rather than just making money people will see that the stakes are much bigger than you, and will be attracted to what you are doing,” he said.

Kurt Becker, Vice Dean for Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, said the VFL is expanding further, including a new lab housing veteran-led early-stage businesses, which contains a prototyping space available to the public via membership:

A panel discussion featured Kevin Eckert, partner of veteran-led venture capital firm Task Force X Capital; Mindy Aviles Kelly, senior vice president of the Partnership Fund for New York City; Jason E. Klein, chairman of the Harvard Business School Alumni Angels of Greater New York and founder and CEO of On Grid Ventures; and Jamaal Glenn, vice president of the Alumni Ventures Group.  The program closed with a fireside chat with VFL graduates Steven Forti, founder of FitFight, Jeremy McCool, founder of NYU Tandon Future Labs graduate HEVO, and Elana Duffy, founder of Pathfinder and alumna of the NYU Tandon Future Labs Veterans Entrepreneurship Training program.