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BU Venture Accelerator helps student businesses get their start

Want an application that hooks you up with popular thrift finds in your area Tinder-style? What about a platform for the exchange of favors between students using virtual currency? Or maybe you’re trying to find a cultural bridge for Chinese students looking to study abroad using easily downloadable content?

What do these three ambitious concepts all have in common? They’re all the foundational ideas for startup companies here on Boston University’s campus. All of which are being fostered through Boston University’s Venture Accelerator.

Startups are not always as glamorous as portrayed in Mark Zuckerberg’s rise to fame in The Social Network. Some are ideas born in dorm rooms, cradled delicately for years and pitched into the Boston ecosystem dozens of times for scraps from Venture Capitalists.

“I feel that everyone who has a startup in college, you know they say it to themselves — in the back of their head they’re thinking that they’re the next Zuckerberg,” said Sebastian Scholl, a School of Hospitality Administration senior and creator of the mobile application Bazaar, which helps people buy and sell items locally. “It’s just kind of like this weird funny hopeful thinking.”

Boston is a city known for its startup ecosystem, rubbing shoulders with tech hubs like Silicon Valley and New York. With millions of dollars in educational resources and a highly educated population, students at schools such as Northeastern University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University have long had their foot in the door.

With the creation of BU Venture Accelerator, which is working with its second semester of ventures, a group of entrepreneurial-minded students are hoping to give the student body access to resources that might have otherwise been out of reach.

“If everything is already done, why should we reinvent the wheel?” said Eduardo Coronado, a College of Engineering junior and director of technology services for BUVA. “Why should we try to overlap with a lot of things that are already done? We want to help them leverage the resources, there are already a lot of resources out there.”

Any of this semester’s ventures can tell you that developing a successful startup, with or without Boston’s resources, is no easy task. After the initial inspiration, prototyping and launching a product are steps that cause many young companies to stumble.

Zak Eisenberg, CEO and co-founder of the cultural immersion program Allmaia, said one of the challenges in the beginning of the process was simply not knowing where to turn.

“I think that the difficulty was not knowing what the hell I was doing, right? Not knowing anything about it,” Eisenberg, a College of Arts and Sciences sophomore, said. “I spoke to as many friends of my family as I could, I read as many things online as I could, but I personally didn’t know about the ecosystem in Boston and I wasn’t aware that there were so many resources out there that could help people like me.”

Gabriel de Selding, the president of BUVA, said he recognizes that finding your footing in the Boston ecosystem is easier said than done.

“The most important thing we do is introduce them [new students] to the Boston ecosystem,” Selding, a School of Management junior, said. “Where to go, what events to go to every weekend and who to know, how to network. The basic stuff that takes a while to get used to when you’re a student, we try to accelerate that, make it a little better and faster.”

Besides balancing schoolwork with their entrepreneurial goals, another challenge that some startups face on campus is simply finding people — technical talent in particular — to commit to the undertaking.

“Finding programmers is like finding unicorns,” Scholl said, “because one, you’re looking for a programmer, but then two you’re looking for one that you can work with.”

Joshua Javaheri, CEO of the favor exchange platform Karma, said finding developers can be difficult, but not impossible.

“Since the campus is spread out, it’s hard to find people that you want to connect with,” Javaheri, an SMG freshman, said. “But if you’re putting yourself out there and getting involved, you’ll meet the right people and talk, and it gets out there.”

Laurens Spethmann, director of human resources and recruitment for BUVA, said pulling a team together at the college level is one of the more difficult aspects of building a startup, but it is also critically important.

“Students are lazy. And students don’t like to commit,” Spethmann, a CAS and SMG junior, said of the challenges of finding the right people to work with. “And that’s been one of the challenges that we’ve seen over time. Is finding technical people, for example.”

Just as entrepreneurs have to be careful about selecting whom they want to build their idea with, BUVA is similarly cautious when choosing which ventures to work with for the semester’s cycle.

“We see what the commitment of the entrepreneur is with this idea,” Coronado said of BUVA’s assessment process. “It’s a key thing. So a lot of times it’s more about the entrepreneur than the idea because the ideas might change.”

While obstacles exist for early-stage startups in any environment, Boston wouldn’t have gained its reputation for being an amazing startup ecosystem if the pros failed to outweigh the cons. In Boston’s case, there are resources that make the goings a little easier for students then they might be in another startup hub such as San Francisco.

“The challenges of being a startup in any setting is being a startup,” Scholl said. “I actually think you have a better chance, it’s a benefit to be in an education setting.”

Erik Molander, a strategy and innovation professor in SMG, believes that BU students continually make lemonade from the lemon’s of the Boston ecosystem. This he attributes to three factors: provided food and shelter, lighter financial pressure and fantastic resources.

“It is very rare that you will be in a position as an entrepreneur where you have such easy access to a market,” Molander said. “And that’s going to be your fellow students. So we strongly urge students to start a business while they’re in school.”

Ian Mashiter, also a strategy and innovation professor in SMG, said Boston’s resources are powerful tools in the hands of motivated students.

“The Boston ecosystem is fantastic,” Mashiter said. “It’s very healthy at the moment, it’s thriving. There are all sorts of resources. Just to give you an example, obviously we know about the Venture Capitalists in town, we have angel investors, but some of the things to pick out are things like the MassChallenge competition … There are incubators and accelerators you can go to whatever your idea is.”

The MassChallenge accelerator is only one example of the programs throughout the Boston area aimed at mentoring new companies. The world’s largest accelerator, it accepts 128 early-stage startups per program. With awards that total over $1.5 million in cash grants and $10 million of in-kind deals, it poses as an appealing option for students.

When combining the advantages of educational and profession resources, Molander argues that Boston creates a uniquely advantaged environment for student entrepreneurs.

“For students starting a business, other than in select areas in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, they’ll never have access to the kind of resources that they do in Boston,” Molander said. “Our ecosystem is just so deep and so knowledgeable that it’s tough to replicate.”

Many student entrepreneurs are advantaged, not only by the utility of their idea, but also by their very status as current students.

“You’re also uniquely advantaged because you don’t really have any risks,” Spethmann said. “Obviously you need to keep on track with your academic work, but you don’t have a mortgage, you don’t have kids, you don’t have any really high expenses that you need to pay. Obviously, your college tuition. But I think overall we’re young and that gives us an advantage.”

On having his own start-up at the college level, Eisenberg finds that taking risks can be easier because while the fear of failing still exists, many of the repercussions of failing are lifted.

“When you’re in college you have student loans and yes, you’re in debt,” he said. “But once you’re out in the real world if you don’t have a job you can’t take out a loan. Banks aren’t going to do that for you.”

While BU has long exercised entrepreneurial strength though summer programs and the Entrepreneurship Club, BUVA is rising to meet a need that is unmet by the student body.

“We had heard that there had been previous attempts,” Coronado said of the need for a student accelerator.  “They had failed, similar programs. I guess it would be because people tend not to understand how much work it is and how much time it would take to get it going.”

With its five-step cycle that includes categories such as assessment, ideation and prototyping, BU students are proving why Mark Zuckerberg stated that if he were starting a company now, he would have kept it in Boston.

“New York has amazing things going on and stuff like that,” Scholl said. “But Boston is more of the incubator. You have all the colleges, and the prominent ones here. You have the professors. You have everyone that wants to learn and teach.”

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