An audience of students gathered in Newcomb Hall Theater on the first Saturday afternoon in September to hear six successful UVA technology entrepreneurs tell their stories.
The event was the second SPARK: Faces of Technology Innovation, sponsored by the Department of Engineering and Society’s entrepreneurship and business programs. As its name implies, the speakers were there to inspire the next generation of UVA technology innovators. Designed with first-year engineering students in mind but open to others with a vision, idea or just the drive to build something of their own, the event is a doorway to UVA’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and the resources it provides.
The presenters were InMEDBio founder and CEO Ashwinraj Karthikeyan, who graduated in 2018 with a degree in aerospace engineering; Beanstalk co-founder Jack Ross, a 2017 computer engineering graduate; AgroSpheres co-founder and COO Payam Pourtaheri, who earned his B.S. in nanomedicine engineering in 2016; Contraline co-founder and CEO Kevin Eisenfrats, a 2015 nanomedicine engineering graduate; Arjun Dirghangi, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the School of Medicine and founder of Scanoptix; and 1989 computer science graduate Karen Druffel, who founded and later sold TI Consulting and now runs Druffel Consulting.
Alex Zorychta, coordinator of student entrepreneurs and director of Works in Progress, organized the event with Liz Pyle, associate director for technology entrepreneurship and director of the UVA I-Corps program. He introduced the speakers with a simple message.
“They are people just like us, only they had a crazy idea and they went for it with all of their hearts,” he told the audience. “They were in your shoes.”
Zorychta noted that Karthikeyan, Ross, Pourtaheri and Eisenfrats represent each of the past four graduating classes. Among them, they have accumulated three ACC InVenture prizes, top finishes in the U.S. Patent Office’s Collegiate Inventors Competition, and two spots at Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator accelerator. Karthikeyan also won the inaugural $50,000 Pike Award for Innovation and Entrepreneurship last year.
In their turns on the stage, the four spoke about leaning on one another as students ― even as they occasionally vied for the same entrepreneurship prizes. Karthikeyan, who was already working on his idea for a novel dressing for chronic wounds when he arrived at UVA, recalled immediately trying to win a $20,000 prize ― and losing to Eisenfrats.
His presentation “sucked,” Karthikeyan said, while Eisenfrats was well prepared. Karthikeyan’s takeaway? Learn from others successes as well as his own failures.
Karthikeyan, the youngest of the four, may have benefited the most from the “culture of founders” at UVA Engineering that Zorychta and Pyle cultivate through Engineering and Society’s Works in Progress initiative. Premised on a concept Zorychta called “the intentional design of peer influences,” the program provides a place ― figuratively and literally through a meeting and workspace called the Lighthouse ― for students pursuing entrepreneurial endeavors outside of formal academic or extracurricular programs.
Zorychta encouraged students to become part of the Works in Progress community and to “make it a lifestyle.” Comparing it to a community of bodybuilders, he said, you can’t build muscle by reading about it. Surrounding yourself with others who are doing the same thing with equal passion for their own ventures creates positive peer pressure to keep at it.
Ross, who with his brother is building a sustainable indoor farming enterprise using robots for labor-intensive tasks, used this strategy at UVA after a failed partnership with an incompatible co-founder in a different venture. As an intern at WillowTree, a mobile app development firm headquartered in Charlottesville, he listened to the company founder, Michael Prichard.
“His biggest thing was that if it’s not fun, it’s not worth it. I took that to heart and said I need to have people around me who I can have fun with,” Ross said.
He talked about the importance of picking up and sustaining momentum to keep your project moving forward. Beanstalk gathered speed nearly as soon as it began in Ross’ fourth year. He started the company through the i.Lab Incubator Program at UVA’s Darden business school ― where Dirghangi, Eisenfrats, Pourtaheri and Karthikeyan are also alumni ― and went on to win a spot in the Y Combinator. In June, Ross won i.Lab’s 2018 Kathryne Carr Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence.
He began working full time on Beanstalk the day after he graduated and gave credit to the entrepreneurial ecosystem at UVA, including his engineering colleagues. “The biggest thing this group does is increase each other’s momentum,” he said.
Each of the presenters spoke for about 10 minutes. They noted the similarities in their experiences, often referring back to previous speakers. Pourtaheri contrasted his experience with his AgroSpheres co-founders with whom he had a “bromance,” to Ross’ ill-fated partnership. They met while collaborating for UVA’s E-Cup.
Showing a photo of them on the screen, he said with both humor and candor, “If you don’t look at your co-founder the way I look at Ameer [Shakeel, biomedical engineering, 2017], you don’t have the right co-founder.”
Dirghangi echoed Karthikeyan in emphasizing just how hard it is to make your product work the way it is supposed to before putting in the hands of your users ― in his case, doctors who need to transmit patient data with technology that is immediate and easy to operate.
It takes persistence, a theme Druffel picked up in the program’s final talk. “Choose not to hear people who say you can’t do something,” she said.
She offered the valuable insight of having built a multimillion software consulting company and selling it to an industry giant. Druffel counseled that good lawyers are worth the money.
“And if you don’t like them, fire them,” she said, recalling several attorneys and accountants who repeatedly addressed correspondence to “Mr. John Druffel,” her husband and partner.
Druffel’s story of struggling through her first year as a computer science major at UVA and persevering to succeed in business inspired Mariam Guirguis. The first-year engineering student from Chantilly attended SPARK after meeting Zorychta earlier in the week.
“I like the idea of finding a problem and solving it and then having the resources [to pursue it],” Guirguis said. “What I heard from this event is that there are a lot of mentors at UVA. Having somebody with more experience to help me realize a dream that I have to impact others is an amazing opportunity.”
Several students approached Zorychta after the SPARK program with similar excitement.
“Judging from the students who came up to me afterward, I think the speakers were cohesive and inspiring. Their message connected with the first-year engineers,” he said.
Zorychta, a 2013 biomedical engineering graduate and former student entrepreneur, said it was the first time he brought back all four of the students he began working with when he joined the Engineering and Society Department.
“They started as regular students with a crazy idea. Seeing their progress and having them reflect on it is rewarding. I think it demonstrates that UVA is emerging as a place that truly cultivates the entrepreneurial mindset.”
Since 2015, Zorychta said, there has been an 18-fold increase in the number of UVA students pursuing independent entrepreneurial projects and four times as many who turn a project into a full-time startup when they graduate.
“Working so closely with Kevin, Payam, Jack and Ashwin helped me develop programs that are enabling UVA to become a thought leader in entrepreneurship education,” he said.
Professor Bernard Carlson, chair of the department, was equally happy with turnout and the SPARK program. About 250 students heard compelling stories with surprising twists and turns, he said.
“In many ways, what is different with this group is that they arrived with a passion for science that was enlarged and empowered by the desire to be entrepreneurial and change the world,” Carlson said.
SPARK attendees also learned about upcoming meetings and workshops to get them started on their own ventures. Interested students can contact Zorychta at email@example.com.