December 20, 2014

THE HUB: New UVM program jumpstarts student businesses

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By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

As winter approaches in Vermont, a group of entrepreneurs at the University of Vermont are working to solve a problem faced by skiers and winter athletes—freezing hands.

“A lot of people were saying that their gloves are really bad. Their hands get really cold and really wet,” said UVM student and Windsor native Kyle Weidman. “It’s a problem I have and all my friend have.”

Weidman, U.S. Ski Team member Skyler Davis, and two biochemical engineering majors are working to create a better glove, one that takes into account how heat circulates through the hand and utilizes what Weidman described as scientifically based, “radical” design ideas.

As Weidman and his team develop innovative solutions to poor glove design, a new UVM program is working to help fund them and other young entrepreneurs across campus.

In October, the school launched UVM Start—a website similar to popular funding platform www.kickstarter.com—where students can post their business ideas and receive direct donations from alumni.

“Everyone came on board and rallied around the students,” said Andrew Stickney, one of the founding members of UVM Start and vice president of Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies.

Along with providing the initial capital, UVM Start hopes to connect student entrepreneurs with alumni mentors.

“There’s not really a great support system for students entrepreneurs on campus, so that’s one of the main things we’re trying to solve,” said Liz Bernier, a UVM Start co-founder. “Students are creating businesses all over campus and they don’t really know where to turn. This is somewhere they can go for mentoring and also the funds that are needed to get the project off the ground.”

Stickney added that it can be difficult to find help and resources for an outside project within the framework of a large institution like UVM.

“Especially for a young entrepreneur, they don’t have the networks, they don’t have the resources,” he said. “This pulls them out of the dorm room and starts to connect them with resources, advisors, mentors. It helps them make their ideas come to life.”

UVM Start is modeled on a program started recently in Middlebury, called Midd Start. Middlebury College staff member Elizabeth Robinson, a VCET board member, suggested that the program would work well at UVM, which has a much larger alumni base. Stickney approached John Evans, senior advisor to UVM’s president, whom Stickney said was instrumental in getting UVM Start running in two months.

UVM Start is intended to be a student-led and student-centric program. Bernier, a UVM senior, said they are looking for younger students to help lead the program once she and other co-founders graduate.

The program is built around the school calendar, so that funding periods end at the end of the semester, meaning students receive funding when they have schoolwork-free periods to work on it.

The website currently hosts seven student businesses looking for funding, including a menswear line, new bike rack design and a robot helicopter that films with a smartphone.

Alumni have already stepped up as mentors and donated more than $4,000 since the launch in October, Stickney said.

Weidman said UVM Start is helping “give us that initial funding to be able to buy materials and just get going on what we want to do.”

Max Ebenstein, a Richmond native whose door-mountable ski and snowboard rack is among the first round of projects, said that aside from startup capital, UVM Start has helped him network.

“It’s been helping me make connections with people in the business world who can help me move my idea forward,” he said.

Helping student entrepreneurs develop a network of local connections could help keep young people in Vermont after college, Stickney said.

“Young people are leaving the state in droves, and it’s hard to find good young talent in Vermont,” Stickney said. “If we give these students the mentoring and support they need to make their dream real, it will be a compelling reason for them to stay and be job creators in Vermont. That, and some of them are just doing some cool stuff.”

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