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Tucked back from the hubbub of West Grace Street you will find on of VCU’s newly opened Living-Learning Programs, VCU Innovate. Tucked inside that, past the lobby, down the hall, and in a small seminar room, you will find something somewhat different.
That small seminar room is the home of Lighthouse Labs, a startup accelerator that helps entrepreneurs in Central Virginia get businesses off the ground and ready for taking investment. Founders receive $20,000 to invest in their startups, as well as 15 intensive weeks of mentoring and training in preparation for pitches to investors. The best part is that they get this with no strings attached (Lighthouse Labs takes 0% equity, unlike most accelerators).
Lighthouse Labs is able to do this through their nonprofit status, participating in their own fundraising efforts year round. But this also means the program has some limitations, specifically with regards to the number of participants. At this point in time the program only accepts 6 applicant companies per year, a slim portion of the total applicant pool.
But, what does this have to do with VCU? And why are they in a VCU facility?
Well, Lighthouse partnered with the VCU Innovate, the da Vinci Center’s Living-Learning Program, who saw an opportunity to provide an insider experience for students participating in the Living Learning Program. These students live in the residence hall and work among the various founders, gaining hands-on experience in the world of entrepreneurial ventures.
I recently visited Lighthouse Labs to talk to the founders and get a sneak peak of a typical day in the Lab. All the startups in Lighthouse that I spoke to are at the forefront of their industries. Zoozil, for example, has digitized the choose-your-own-adventure novel format and integrated it with backend tools to help educators help their students with reading. Another, MajorClarity, helps high school students pick a career my assessing their interests and strengths, and then finding them hands-on experiences with the work in that field. As I talked with each of the founders, I became more and more impressed with the caliber of their ideas, and the work they continually put into developing them.
Despite the already small seminar room, I felt a little small compared to these all-stars of the Richmond startup scene, at least, until the weekly standup meeting began. These meetings are an important part of the process because they allow each founder to give the group a status update. As the founders talked about being stressed, what was exciting them, and where they needed help, I was reminded that you don’t need to be an all-star to be an innovator.
Talking with the founders afterwards, I learned that the founder of Zoozil was a struggling reader when he was a kid, and the founder of MajorClarity switched his major several times. I found it funny that we typically would assume it’s the award winning teachers and career counselors who drive innovation in these fields. Often though, it’s the dropouts and soul-seekers who know when something isn’t working and try to fix it. Even if we are all not cut-out to be entrepreneurs like the founders, both the founders and students working with them prove that it’s our ideas, not accomplishments, that make us innovators.
If you’ve got an innovative idea that has potential, go for it. Or if you want to help any of the startups currently in Lighthouse Labs work on their ideas, shoot them an email and let them know!