Through its signature summer incubator program for new ventures and its many resources for growing start-ups, the University of Virginia’s i.Lab has helped cement Charlottesville’s status as a growing hub of entrepreneurship. But UVA’s community of innovation extends far beyond the boundaries of Central Virginia, and now, the i.Lab does, too.
The “Virtual i.Lab” went live this summer, allowing entrepreneurs in the current incubator class to connect with UVA mentors and resources all around the world. The interactive digital platform is the brainchild of the new i.Lab Incubator director, Jason Brewster.
“I launched similar platforms for National Geographic Magazine and Rails-to-Trails Conservancy at my previous start-up, Nimbus,” he said. “In NatGeo’s case, we scaled the platform to over 20,000 users and 400,000 posts.”
He saw an opportunity to do something similar for i.Lab’s Incubator class, to expand members’ access to other innovators in the University community who may not be able to come to Charlottesville in person. The platform has its own direct chat feature, discussion forums, a video archive of mentor and participant presentations and a newsfeed of all the latest updates from the i.Lab. Users can also search the profiles of mentors and participants to find shared points of interest and experience.
“The group in the incubator is mostly here in person and they all know each other, but as the network recruits more and more mentors, we’re trying to position the platform to be this connective tissue back to the incubator program,” said Yates McCallum, the i.Lab’s virtual program coordinator. “It provides a window into the ventures, their curriculum and their status updates.”
In addition to connecting more mentors with incubator participants, the Virtual i.Lab also creates an institutional forum where UVA entrepreneurs can share their experiences and crowd-source advice on common challenges faced in the early stages of a new business.
The virtual platform has also made it possible to have a summer incubator team working outside of Charlottesville for the first time. Sam Boochever and Maximillian Huc, both second-year students in UVA’s Darden School of Business, are participating in the i.Lab from across the country as they begin launching their business in Los Angeles.
“Before this, there was a space missing for people who wanted to launch companies with i.Lab, but the nature of their venture dictated that they be in other locations,” Boochever said.
He and Huc are the co-founders of a new app called 1Degree that allows users to chat directly with influencers – celebrities, athletes, musicians and so on – through a digital bidding process. In order to get their start-up off the ground, they needed to have a physical presence near the entertainment industry in California.
The Virtual i.Lab has allowed them to stay in regular contact with all the incubator’s mentor members and engage with their peers on questions about the early stages of business. They can also watch uploaded videos of presentations they may have missed and post their own video updates for others to see.
“We’re excited that we got a chance to pioneer this program. I think it’s a huge step forward and proof of UVA’s commitment to entrepreneurship,” Boochever said.
He added that he felt as if they were fully engaged in the program from afar, but would still be returning to Charlottesville for the last week of the incubator program this summer. As the first group to participate remotely, they want to be able to compare their virtual experience with the residential program.
Brewster is certain there will be more remote incubator ventures in the future, but they will be limited to companies like 1Degree that are dependent on a different geographical location to conduct their business. The heart of the i.Lab will remain in Charlottesville, while the Virtual i.Lab will help expand the network of UVA entrepreneurs and create a space where they can connect with each other.
“There are big aspirations for the platform and we see it becoming a nexus for entrepreneurs and people who are like-minded at UVA,” i.Lab Program Manager Sandra McCutcheon said. “It’s a work in progress, but our goal is to make it a world-class archive with information and resources for our ever-growing community of entrepreneurs.”
Every past incubator participant will be encouraged to remain active on the platform, and Brewster hopes to expand the network by inviting entrepreneurial alumni from other areas of the UVA community to join.
“As we add more users, we will reach a critical mass where entrepreneurs will have a robust network through which to seek help tackling audacious goals,” he said. “The UVA network of alumni is one of the best in the world, and with systems like this one, we can remove barriers of time and place to increase overall engagement.”