With the New York City skyline in the background and an audience of business leaders, mentors and Cornell alumni seated before them, the newest members of eLab, Cornell’s student business accelerator, pitched their entrepreneurial ideas at the annual eLab NYC Pitch Night.
The event, held Nov. 7 in the offices of law firm WilmerHale at the World Trade Center, brought together Cornell students, alumni and others interested in helping the student entrepreneurs bring their ideas to fruition.
Established in 2008 by the Student Agencies Foundation and Entrepreneurship at Cornell and housed in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, eLab provides mentorship and training to teams of students who want to explore and expand their startup ideas. Over the years, the program has produced many successful startups, including:
- Antithesis Foods, which recently received a National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research award to scale up production of its novel chickpea-based dough; and
- Combplex, which just won $250,000 at the Grow-NY Food and Ag Summit to continue developing technology to eliminate parasitic mites devastating honeybee colonies.
“The program has produced a number of successful alumni over the years,” said Ken Rother, managing director of eLab, “The effectiveness of eLab is due in large part to the program remaining customer-focused, in addition to drawing upon a network of experienced mentors, many of whom have completed the program themselves.”
This year’s eLab NYC Pitch Night featured 15 teams from the current 24-team cohort, eLab’s largest cohort to date. Students pitched a range of innovative ideas, including: VeriVote, an app that helps students determine where their election votes will have the most impact; Le Fay Laundry Care, an all-natural laundry additive that repels mosquitos; and PediCure, a tool to assist the elderly with trimming their toenails independently.
Students were selected for the accelerator at the beginning of the academic year. Over the course of the yearlong program, they complete credit-bearing courses, workshops and training; receive mentoring from experienced entrepreneurs; and engage in “customer discovery,” the important process of interviewing customers to better understand the market fit of their ideas.
Jessica Tao ’20, co-founder of PediCure, said all four team members – including Jialin Ke ’20, Joshua Zhu ’20 and Jonathan Pao ’19 – were raised by their grandparents. That raised their awareness of issues facing the elderly – including toenail care.
“Once we started talking with other senior citizens outside of our families,” Tao said, “we were able to confirm that this was a valid issue, so we decided to address it.”
While eLab students benefit from the training and resources provided, many of them point to connections made with other student entrepreneurs as the program’s greatest value.
“Upon entering the program, I expected a lot of competition between the teams,” said Nicole Garcia ’19, co-founder of Le Fay Laundry Care, “but it’s actually been really collaborative. I was surprised by how supportive the environment has been.”
“We expected a lot more competition internally, such as companies competing for mentor resources,” said Le Fay co-founder Christopher Braden Koszarsky ’19. “But in reality, the mentors do a great job making themselves available to everyone and helping out where each team needs it. Additionally, just talking with other teams has helped us refine our concept and process.”
Networking is a large part of eLab NYC Pitch Night; the event is structured to connect eLab startups with prospective advisers and future mentors. Doctoral student Maya Mundell, founder of The Scholar Coin, an online platform that assists students with securing financing for higher education, showed up to the event with the goal of making connections.
“It’s extremely inspiring to connect with people who have founded companies and made successful exits,” she said. “Being among experts makes me feel as though it is possible for me to also have a successful business. … It’s great to be part of a network where people are informed and doing effective work in the startup world.”
The eLab NYC Pitch Night marks the halfway point of the program. The students will present their final pitches during the Entrepreneurship at Cornell Celebration event held on campus April 16-17, 2020.
Sara Baier is a marketing and communications specialist for the Center for Regional Economic Advancement.