In the age of startup-mania, accelerators, incubators and the constant search for venture capital,Northeastern Universityis taking a proactive approach to getting would-be founders to an entrepreneurial happy-place.
IDEA calls itself a “venture accelerator,” The three-year-old program within the university was founded by students who – after coming face to face with the harsh realities of startup life – felt the school should have a means of cultivating new, student-founded small businesses and getting them ready for prime time.
Funded by alumni, the program allows current students and young graduates access to coaches, mentors, service providers and eventually funding to get their ideas off the ground. IDEA meted out just under $215,000 this school year to 17 young ventures. “We have seven funding rounds over the course of the year and normally about five (ventures) that pitch every funding round,” says Christopher Wolfel, CEO of the program and a senior business administration student at Northeastern.
Mentors with IDEA are all Northeastern alumni that have been involved in the founding of at least one company, Wolfel explained. They are matched to potential startups based on industry expertise and meet with the programs later stage ventures at least once a month. Student coaches – MBA students or seniors – are also available daily to field questions within specific expertise like sales, marketing, engineering or technical and financial.
To get their hands on seed money, students must go through an investment committee which decides whether a venture is ready to make a pitch. Passing that hurdle means a chance to make the case for funding before an advisory panel made up of Wolfel, program donors, a faculty advisor, a student head coach and the aforementioned student investment committee. The program distributes funding in the form of grants—the university does not ask for equity, intellectual property or ask recipients to pay anything back.
“We know it’s not going to take them from concept to being Google but we know that it will get them stepping in the right direction and hopefully fill in the gap,” said Wolfel.
IDEA is not merely a means of empowering Northeastern’s young founders but also a push to highlight the university as a nursery for new companies and innovation, while beefing up the institution’s status as a training ground for entrepreneurs, Wolfel explained.
So far, IDEA has had over 350 ventures go through its accelerator to date and has 135 actively going through the process right now. “Our portfolio of ventures ranges from t-shirts to military robotics and everything in between.”
Success stories include Akrivis Technology, a life sciences firm that arose from the program’s ‘Lab to Venture’ initiative—taking Northeastern’s lab technologies to market. “After IP is negotiated with the university we try to incubate that into a real company, not just a technology in a lab,” said Wolfel. Akrivis’s biomolecular analysis solutions are now distributed globally.
Another bright spot is the food startup Mini Pops—an air-popped sorghum grain product that’s now distributed at Whole Foods and has even drawn the praises of Oprah Winfrey, finding its way onto her list of favorite things in 2012.
The IDEA lab at Northeastern University.
Over a year ago, IDEA was granted a lab on campus to call its own for holding workshops and toiling away on projects. “There’re people in there from 7 a.m. until 3 a.m., probably, working on different ideas, talking with coaches or interacting venture to venture,” Wolfel said.
Appropriately, Wolfel, who is graduating this week, will be taking a sales and business development job with a Boston-based startup called Yesware, which produces a Gmail add-on aimed at helping salespeople communicate more effectively and organize their correspondents to maximize productivity. When he looks into the future, Wolfel sees himself as a potential serial entrepreneur. “My real goal would probably to work at a couple of startups and learn as much as possible over the next few years And then start my own,” Wolfel explained. “I would love to start multiple of my own companies and then, maybe one day, do the VC side.”