Darden Incubator to Host Record Number of Ventures This Summer

May 21, 2010 — This summer, 18 entrepreneurship ventures will hatch a bevy of ideas in the University of Virginia's Darden Business Incubator, housed this summer in the Darden School's new i.Lab.

"It's our largest group," said Philippe Sommer, director of entrepreneurship programs at the Darden School of Business.

The incubator's mission is to help MBA students bring early-stage business ventures to life. Unlike programs at other business schools, the Darden Business Incubator supplies each venture with more than $13,000 to cover expenses; physical office space; help in finding third-party investment support; and a supportive community of fellow entrepreneurs over the course of a year. Funding is provided by a generous grant from the Batten family to support entrepreneurship and innovation at Darden.

While each venture must involve a Darden student, the incubator is also open to members of the wider U.Va. community. Projects are selected on the basis of the commitment of the students, the details of the business plan and the research behind it. Once in the incubator, participants are encouraged to establish an advisory board.

Among this year's ventures are Yebofund, created by Darden first-year student Joe Andrasko and his team, a "socially impactful private equity and economic development fund" based in Africa. The fund purchased a farm in Swaziland in the spring of 2009, generated 125 local full-time jobs and has increased weekly exports sixfold. Yebofund's goals in the incubator include investigating if additional farms in the vicinity are available for purchase, offering opportunities for growth. "This is not another donation system of Americans giving money to Africans," said Andrasko. "This is for savvy investors."

Dobro Media is another venture to be housed in the 2010 incubator. Founded by Darden first-year student Brianne Warner, and MBA executive program student John D. Dowd, the business ultimately seeks to produce individualized print newspapers for consumers. Their first product, Precision Ads, generates local advertisements tailored for specific groups that are printed on cover sheets and delivered to consumers' homes with the local newspaper. Dobro Media won third place in the Darden-U.Va. Business Plan Competition in April.

The Third Space, founded by Darden first-year student Trevor Thomas, will be an "interactive arthouse lounge" located in the Los Angeles Airport. In partnership with local university studio art programs, The Third Space concept calls for student artwork on exhibit as well as for sale, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, snacks and access to vintage and modern video games. In the incubator, Thomas hopes to continue building out the business plan with help from advisers in the airport services industry, academic art community and general business.

Among the other ventures to be supported by the incubator are an online medical supplies company, a geriatric consulting business, an event-based social networking website and a wholesale plant nursery.

The incubator has enjoyed an impressive success rate over the nine years of its history, with nearly 50 percent of the ventures surviving the five-year mark. One example, Global Cell Solutions, headquartered in Charlottesville, was co-founded in 2004 by Uday Gupta, a 2004 Darden graduate, and Robin Felder, University Professor and director of U.Va.'s Medical Automation Research Center. Gupta launched the company, which markets groundbreaking cell culturing techniques, from the incubator. 

In 2009, BioLevitator, a technology invented at the U.Va. School of Medicine and commercialized by Global Cell, was named one of the 10 "most exciting tools to hit the life sciences" by The Scientist magazine. BioLevitator is an automated single-unit incubator and centrifuge and one of the first 3-D cell culture systems. It allows researchers to grow more cells in less time than two-dimensional systems and is closer to a natural in vivo environment.

"This is a great opportunity for students really committed to starting a business," Sommer said. "The incubator is not about theoretical or textbook businesses, it's about creating them in the real world."

— By Brevy Cannon