“A family of kitchen-savvy Turkish immigrants, an inventive former athlete and two social media pioneers walk into a lab …”
Or they will on Wednesday, anyway.
Those are just a few of the participants in this year’s i.Lab Incubator program at the University of Virginia. Since the Darden School of Business program expanded to include U.Va. and community ventures two years ago, it has offered workspace, funds and guidance to budding entrepreneurs across Grounds and the surrounding community.
The incubator’s 10-week summer session kicks off Wednesday, and participating groups will be nurturing businesses that dabble in everything from the organic food industry to emerging fashion trends to app design and much more.
Three of this year’s 23 participating ventures offered a preview of their plans for the summer. (For a full list of the 2015 i.Lab ventures, click here.)
Summers Nelson is an alumna of the U.Va. women’s rowing team and has remained active since graduating from the McIntire School of Commerce in 2010. While helping a friend train for a triathlon last year, Nelson discovered that all-natural, easy-to-eat snacks were almost non-existent for runners and other endurance athletes.
“My friend was getting so tired of eating all the goos and gels that are on the market,” she said.
Nelson met fellow athlete Anthony Hayes while attending U.Va.’s Darden School of Business and the two agreed that there had to be a better-tasting, natural way to refuel during a workout. The idea for RealFuel was born.
The pair started by speaking with more athlete friends about their preferences and began making test batches in Nelson’s kitchen.
“The biggest issue that we ran into was the nutrition profile,” Hayes said. “We started out testing a lot of different potatoes, but it turned out that they didn’t have enough caloric value.”
In order to take on competitors, it was important that any snack they make have about 120 calories per ounce. They eventually settled on the best ingredients by aggregating information from the Food and Drug Administration website and running it through a nutrition optimization model that Hayes designed.
The magic ingredients turned out to be tapioca and dates.
“Both ingredients fit the nutrition profile that we needed and they don’t have a very distinct taste. It’s easier to mask them with other tastes, so they’re kind of an ideal mixture of ingredients,” Nelson said.
Nelson and Hayes are now working with a contract manufacturer to create the first sample packages of RealFuel. With the mentorship and networking opportunities available through i.Lab, the founders hope to set up an e-commerce website or find a third party to help sell their product.
Ali and Meryem Erarac moved from Turkey to Charlottesville in 2002 so that Ali could attend the Darden School. Years later, looking for a way to teach their young son about business, the couple decided to let him try a lemonade stand at the Charlottesville City Market.
Shortly before the day that their son planned to set up his stand, the Eraracs were offered hibiscus flower tea for the first time by a friend. Loving the refreshing sweet and tart flavor, Meryem and Ali decided they would try brewing it themselves and let their son sell that instead.
“We found that the tea is very popular in Northern Africa, the Caribbean and parts of Latin America, but not many people drink it in the United States,” Ali said.
It was a big hit at the City Market – so much so that the Eraracs returned more than once to sell it. They even made arrangements to sell it in the Whole Foods grocery stores in Charlottesville and Richmond.
The Eraracs had been selling their tea for about two years when they met long-time natural food broker David Kramer at the Virginia Specialty Food Show.
“It was really a hobby to make some extra money and get enjoyment out of until we met David,” Ali said. “He convinced us to make it a real business.”
Kramer soon became a partner in their new company, PureHibi, and used his contacts to help the Eraracs expand their distribution into Northern Virginia, Washington and Maryland.
“I think we have a great team with Ali’s brewing and logistical knowledge, Meryem’s crafting skills and my sales experience,” Kramer said.
For PureHibi, i.Lab offers a chance to broaden their reach and learn more about the best practices for socially responsible entrepreneurship.
As social media has evolved, users’ personal networks on sites like Facebook and Twitter have expanded far beyond close friends. Darden students Matt Krieg and John White hope to create an outlet that whittles down those networks and encourages users to have regular, more meaningful interactions with their close friends.
Their planned app, called $tockLife, sets up a special chat window for small friend groups and allows them to set up a “portfolio” based on their interactions.
When one friend does something admirable, other participants can send them plus points that increase their personal stock value. Users can also send minus points in response to actions like bad jokes or missing out on group activities.
“The goal is not to make it that competitive, but to get everyone more involved in each other’s lives and get everyone together,” White said.
Right now, White and Krieg have designed each $tockLife session set to last between four to six weeks, but they envision future options for shorter sessions centered around events like bachelor and bachelorette parties.
“Truly keeping up with close friends, beyond what they may be posting on Facebook or Instagram, requires discipline,” Krieg said. “By providing a competitive framework, participants are drawn into a $tockLife conversation more so than they might be within a standard group text.”
White and Krieg see i.Lab as an opportunity to test their ideas with a larger audience and learn more about conducting business in the digital marketplace.