The Race Is on for Entrepreneurial Student Teams
The 10-Day NYU J-Term Startup Sprint Was a Fast and Furious Way to Go from Initial Idea to Viable Business Plan
For some students, January marked not just the start of a new year but the chance to start a whole new venture. J-Term, as the period between Fall and Spring Terms is called, is a time when ambitious students can study abroad or takes courses that might not fit into their usual academic schedules. This year, they could even try getting a business off the ground, thanks to the J-Term Startup Sprint, a program overseen by NYU’s Entrepreneurial Institute and Tandon’s Convergence for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) Institute and supported by the NSF I-Corps Sites Grant.
The Startup Sprint was exactly what the name implies: a breakneck introduction to Lean Startup methodology. In 10 intense days, participants learned how to:
- interview potential customers
- articulate a compelling value proposition
- identify a scalable business model
- build and test minimum viable products (MVPs)
- raise further funding, and
- decide what type of legal entity to form.
From a field of almost 100 applicants across NYU, 13 were chosen to participate based on the strength of their ideas, willingness to commit to what was certain to be an arduous process, and desire to address real consumer and societal needs.
"... it was especially thrilling to see so many teams comprised of young women, some of them tackling problems that affect women and that have not yet been addressed adequately in the marketplace."
— Professor Jin Kim Montclare
An emphasis was placed on STEM-based ventures, and given that parameter it’s unsurprising that a high percentage of the teams included Tandon students. Professor David Lefer, who directs the Innovation and Technology Forum, which teaches incoming freshmen to think creatively and entrepreneurially, encouraged several of his students to apply. “Last year we combined the Forum with the Introduction to Engineering and Design course to launch what we’re calling the i2e [invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship] program, and participants got a lot of hands-on experience in developing solutions to real-world problems, which is the main goal of engineering as a field,” Lefer said. “I’m happy that some of them expanded on that by diving into the Startup Sprint. The fact that they were willing to undertake such an intense, fast-paced program bodes well for their future success in the intense, fast-paced world of entrepreneurship.”
The Sprint attracted several aspiring founders from groups typically underrepresented in the STEM fields, including women. “STEM entrepreneurship holds great appeal for our engineering students, including our female and underrepresented students,” explained Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Jin Kim Montclare, who is also the founding director of Tandon’s CIE Institute. “Part of the CIE’s mission is to increase the number of female STEM entrepreneurs, so it was especially thrilling to see so many teams comprised of young women, some of them tackling problems that affect women and that have not yet been addressed adequately in the marketplace.”
The Tandon teams that completed the Sprint are off to a great start and the finish line — a thriving business — is in sight.
As young women living and studying in New York, Brittany Kendrick (‘17), Aida Mehovic (‘19), Emily Muggleton (‘18), and Camila Morocho ('19) understand the pitfalls and dangers of navigating the city on your own. Recognizing the truth of the adage that there is safety in numbers, they conceived of a mobile app that would connect women with similar commutes so that they would have traveling companions. "During the Startup Sprint, we interviewed more than 60 women of different backgrounds around New York City,” they explain. “What really stood out and changed our perspective was that women were concerned about their safety not only on public transportation, but also in car sharing such as Uber and Lyft.”
The four had originally come up with the concept in October 2017, during the Forbes Idea Incubator Challenge event. An extension of the 2017 Forbes Women’s Summit at Tandon, the Challenge had tasked the participating teams with developing ways to ensure that reliable, safe, and affordable transportation options were available to women and girls in underserved communities. At the end of the event, their cleverly named app was judged to be the top idea and won the first-ever Audi Drive Progress Grant, a prize initiative launched by the automaker to encourage young women to enter the STEM fields. And now that they’ve completed the Startup Sprint, there are no limits to how far they might travel.
In 2017 Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Miguel Modestino garnered a Global Change Award from the H&M Foundation for a proposed method of using water, plant waste, and solar energy to manufacture nylon, instead of the fossil fuel currently used. Now, two of his students, undergraduate Myriam Sbeiti (‘18) and doctoral candidate Daniela Blanco, have joined forces to shepherd that innovation from the lab to the real world. They envision the process being of interest to not just the fashion industry but to anyone in the broader chemical-manufacturing world seeking greener production methods. “Participating in the Startup Sprint was a game-changer for us,” the pair, who are also semi-finalists in NYU’s 300K Entrepreneurs Challenge, explained. “We did cost analyses and customer discovery and explored what the industry landscape looks like now. Those 10 days showed us how important it is, as engineers, to get out of the lab and devote some focus not to the technology but to the people who’ll be using it.”
Collaborating with teammates from Tisch, Izaac Crayton (’20) has developed a web platform that lets artists and creators showcase their work to peers — as well as to potential clients and employers. Aimed at those working in new media formats like augmented and virtual reality, the platform is based on the premise that when art and design meet technology, magic can happen. “It will be open to people of all skill levels, from beginners to professionals,” Crayton said. “We hope that in addition to functioning as a portfolio of sorts, the platform will provide a way for creative people to network and inspire each other.” He himself was inspired by the Startup Sprint. “This is the first entrepreneurial activity I’ve undertaken as a web developer,” he said. “It was good for me to get out from behind the computer and test my ideas. It was amazing just how many times in under two weeks I discovered I was wrong about something.”
Students from Steinhardt and CUSP are creating an ambisonic microphone (one that allows for recording and reproducing audio in full 360-degree surround) especially tailored for cinematographers, journalists, and game designers wanting to explore the possibilities of immersive platforms like virtual reality. They are doing so with input from Spencer Cappiello (‘19), a Tandon Integrated Digital Media student who has already received attention for his work on Relevant Motion, a system that combines virtual reality, motion capture, and occupational therapy to provide a cost-friendly, at-home physical therapy system.
The J-Term Startup Sprint Program was supported by the NSF grant NSF-IIP-164468.