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U.Va.’s i.Lab Unites Entrepreneurs From the University, Local Community

Entrepreneurs flock to the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, and for good reason.

The Business Incubator at the W.L. Lyons Brown III Innovation Laboratory – colloquially known as the “i.Lab” – housed at Darden’s Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, serves as a hub where experts nurture startups. This summer’s crop of participants included 25 companies, including seven from the local community.

The incubating businesses offer diverse services, including websites to discover the local music scene, find reliable pet care and help connect tourists with area residents to enjoy a truly authentic local experience. Other entrepreneurs offer products ranging from spirits to organic energy bars. 

Since 2000, when the i.Lab business incubator first opened at Darden, exactly half of the 126 ventures are still open for business.

These entrepreneurs, who were carefully selected for admission, are diverse, driven and imaginative.

For example, Christine Mahoney, an associate professor of politics and public policy at U.Va., started Sana Study to provide “high-quality, on-demand tutors in statistics to college students via videoconference, whenever they need it, around the clock,” she said. “We are a social business. We employ top-ranked graduate students in the best universities in the United States and India.”

Darden second-year student Erik Breuhaus founded Performance Diagnostics to commercialize an MRI diagnostic tool “to procure very clean muscle images of a customer/patient.”

“The hypothesis is that by knowing precisely how large each muscle in the leg is, athletes/customers/patients can change the way they are training or rehabbing in order to increase their performance, decrease injury risk and make more informed decisions to speed rehab while making smarter return-to-play decisions,” he said.

Charlottesville resident Wendi Smith started a consignment business called Leftover Luxuries in 2009 to blur “the distinction between retail and resale.”

Her sales events “create retail urgency,” she said. “By hand-selecting each item and focusing on fine craftsmanship, we remove the stigma associated with consignment.”

The three entrepreneurs and their colleagues turned to the i.Lab to help them jump the complex hurdles – mental and physical – faced by all budding businesses, but especially in experimenting with new business ideas.

The participants receive free office space, mentoring, business services and the opportunity to work alongside a diverse cohort of fellow entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs say the i.Lab is a fertile haven for them, full of energy, passion and good advice.

Smith, the single mother of two boys, brings a steadfast attitude to the i.Lab. “Entrepreneurs need a bit of insanity … [and] a ton of guts, but more importantly, conviction,” she said. “For me, I just knew down to my soul that I had come up with something that would work. The i.Lab creates a very safe and secure place for your ideas to run wild – but, more importantly you are surrounded by the same type of thinkers.”

“The i.Lab has been tremendous,” Breuhaus said. “The mentors that they have brought in to assist us young entrepreneurs have been invaluable. Also, the style in which the i.Lab was conducted kept us focused on what was important in such an early stage – the customers and the market.”

Second-year Darden student Kyle Simmons agreed. “The i.Lab has opened a variety of doors for me as an entrepreneur,” said Simmons, who started Nuduro to help diabetics and others receive better nutrition through a Web and mobile platform. The platform “makes personalized meal recommendations based on a user’s taste, lifestyle and unique nutritional needs.” He also said his business will “make your life easier and more delicious.”

“I spent the summer meeting with CEOs, investors, doctors and potential advisers with extensive backgrounds in the diabetes industry,” Simmons said. “These conversations have informed my strategy and have created relationships that will be instrumental for my business moving forward.”

“I think the i.Lab is an incredible resource for Darden business students and community entrepreneurs like myself,” said Kelly Love, a Charlottesville resident who co-founded Branch Basics.

Branch Basics is a lifestyle brand that educates consumers about healthy living and provides a human-safe cleaning soap concentrate for all cleaning needs. Her line of non-toxic soap is “powerful enough to use on toilets and greasy stove tops, but gentle enough to use on skin,” she said.

“The i.Lab has been a significant help in getting me to focus on important concepts that I thought I knew but I didn’t,” she said. “For instance, the summer program really stressed knowing your customer. I thought I knew my customer, but there was so much I didn’t know.”

“The fact that I essentially have access to the extensive Darden network is invaluable,” Love said. “The entrepreneur-in-residence program is extremely helpful in providing mentorship to someone like myself without a business background.”

Philippe Sommer, director of the Batten Institute’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership and i.Lab, and associate for entrepreneurship programs with U.Va. Innovation, said of the group, “Entrepreneurship is a contact sport fueled by caffeine.”

Simmons elaborated on his cohort’s drive. “Passion is what gets entrepreneurs up in the morning, keeps them up at night and drives them each day to build a successful company. Starting a company is a roller coaster ride, and perseverance is critical to fight through the low times and stay focused through the high times.”

by Carlos Santos

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