On February 24, 2017 in the Alvarez Student Union, five finalists competed for the opportunity of a lifetime: $50,000 awarded to fund one winner’s start-up company. Venture Fund Pitch Day, hosted by Davidson Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E), is an opportunity to learn, experience, and gain public exposure for one’s idea.
Venture Fund is a “program that provides students and alumni with funding and investment for their entrepreneurial ventures,” according to John-Michael Murphy ‘16, the current Davidson I&E fellow. The Venture Fund was made possible through the generous gift of the Nisbet family, and Venture Fund Pitch Day is sponsored by local organizations, including a special contribution by Launch Lake Norman.
The program has been going on for four years and is seen as the I&E office’s third tier program, or its biggest grant opportunity. At the first tier, the I&E office has the Failure Fund, which offers students $150-$1000 to pursue their creative entrepreneurial idea and work with the office to experiment and brainstorm. According to Murphy, “That funding opportunity really comes with not much expectation of success. We are going to stand by students. We truly hope that students will thrive but if they fail, it’s okay. Hard stop.” At the second tier, the I&E office provides the Avinger Scholarship, which offers students $5,000 for their entrepreneurial ideas. Additionally, the I&E office offers mentorship opportunities for students.
The applicants to the Venture Fund program must be either a Davidson student or an alumnus who is less than 10 years out of his or her Davidson education. Before the finalists are brought to Davidson to compete in Pitch Day, they complete applications online. Through this platform, the applicants must submit a short video and a 2,000 word essay in which they sell their product. Once these finalists are selected, they are brought to Davidson to compete in Venture Fund Pitch Day. The I&E office leaves all the judging decisions to a panel of venture capitalists and established entrepreneurs; the best pitch receives $50,000.
This year, the competition included five start-ups: VetFetch, Roots, SocialPreneur Lab, Memory Crane, and Bloomerent. VetFetch is an online guide to help decipher and select the perfect healthcare provider for a client’s pet. Roots is an app-based product that matches travelers to local guides, and sponsors orientation services for people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes. SocialPreneur has developed and commercialized a curriculum that will help educators and parents expose youth, as early as during kindergarten, to entrepreneurship and the process of business development. Memory Crane combines the functionality of several previously incoherent widgets and integrates them into a small, streamlined package for the user.
Last, but certainly not least, there is Bloomerent, the recipient of $50,000. The business is based on a vision to transform the way that brides, grooms, and event hosts choose florists and shop for wedding flowers. Bloomerent creates a two-sided marketplace that connects customers to a curated community of top-rated florists and allows event hosts to share their centerpieces for another event in close proximity for reuse.
Despite the start-up’s success, founders Julia Caplino ’11 and Danit Zamir have faced setbacks. One of the biggest challenges is convincing brides, grooms, and event hosts that sharing their flowers will not make their day any less special or unique. Surprisingly, despite the popularity of sharing apps, such as Uber and Airbnb, Zamir and Capalino must work tirelessly to make various event hosts feel comfortable with the idea of sharing flowers. They still have far to go in normalizing this concept in the wedding business.
Bloomerent plans on growing its business to include more products, more communication between every transaction, and more brainstorming between both recipients about what the floral arrangements will look like. Additionally, Bloomerent plans to hire a full-time technology lead to streamline the online process.
Through her successes and failures, Capalino offers some advice to innovative students: “Fail quickly, fail cheap.” Often entrepreneurs are hesitant to put their product out onto the market if it isn’t “perfect” or doesn’t completely fulfill the creator’s original vision. Capalino argues that one should place their product on the market as soon as they can in order to receive feedback from consumers.
Murphy offers similar advice: “The skills that you learn at Davidson make all Davidson students qualified to start their own business and to really run enterprise or venture. Through a lot of really great ways…[you can] make real change in a community. You don’t just have to do that through a non-profit or the academy.”