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Hilton Bennett, then a senior in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering and now a Master of Product Innovation student at VCU, pitches a business idea last fall to VCU's pre-accelerator program. Bennett's idea was centered around an invention he designed to allow mountain climbers to practice indoors. Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs
Hilton Bennett, then a senior in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering and now a Master of Product Innovation student at VCU, pitches a business idea last fall to VCU's pre-accelerator program. Bennett's idea was centered around an invention he designed to allow mountain climbers to practice indoors. Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

VCU launches newly expanded pre-accelerator program, called VCU Pre-X, to better support student innovators and entrepreneurs

By Brian McNeill
University Public Affairs

The da Vinci Center at Virginia Commonwealth University is looking for entrepreneurial and innovative students, as well as mentors from the Richmond area’s business community, to take part in a newly expanded and revamped pre-accelerator program that helps VCU students turn their promising ideas into viable startup companies.

VCU’s pre-accelerator program launched in 2015 to identify, support and launch high-growth and high-potential startups and student founders. Over four cohorts, the program’s teams raised more than $2 million in investment and revenue, and three student-run companies went on to be accepted into Lighthouse Labs, the Richmond region’s startup accelerator program.

Now called VCU Pre-X, the pre-accelerator program has shifted to a new model in which all VCU students who meet the minimum requirements will be able to access the program’s curriculum, tools and mentorship. As they progress through the program, participants will have to meet benchmarks and compete with one another for funding.

“Not only does this model provide all of VCU’s top students with access to curriculum, tools, and mentorship, it simulates a real-world competitive environment and allows teams to pivot and form strategic partnerships with each other throughout the program,” said Garret Westlake, Ph.D., executive director of the da Vinci Center, a collaboration of VCU’s schools of the Arts, Business, Engineering and College of Humanities and Sciences to advance innovation and entrepreneurship.

VCU Pre-X is open to all VCU students, including freshmen undergraduates, medical students, executive M.B.A. students and anyone else who has a great idea. Students will benefit from a $30,000 fund, a wide array of industry mentors and the option to earn academic credit. The deadline to apply is Dec. 15.

“The program is designed to introduce students to influential members of the community and fellow students, and provide for intense collaboration as well as acceleration,” Westlake said. “The program will provide tracks for individual inventors, as well as for students with businesses already in revenue.”

The new approach to VCU’s pre-accelerator program reflects the da Vinci Center’s aim to design and deliver new national models for student entrepreneurship that are based on access and excellence, Westlake said.

“The reimagined VCU Pre-X program is designed to support VCU’s high-potential students and companies,” he said. “The program connects VCU student innovators and entrepreneurs to Richmond and the region.”

Somiah Lattimore, director of experiential learning at the da Vinci Center, and Aaron Forrester, co-faculty on the pre-accelerator, redesigned the program’s curriculum to incorporate a foundation in human-centered design methodologies, culminating in acceleration readiness according to industry standards.

Also as part of VCU Pre-X, the program is seeking mentors from the community who will have access to student applications and will select the students they are interested in supporting. Accepted mentors will be asked to make a $1,000 tax-deductible gift to the da Vinci Center, which will then use the gifts to create a mentor-controlled seed fund to support student-led companies in the program.

Additionally, the program’s student participants will benefit from free business incorporation services from Richmond-based entrepreneurial law firm LeClairRyan’s newly announced “acceLR” program that provides low-cost and high-value documents needed for the organization of new companies.

“One of the most important drivers of the economic growth that entrepreneurs are bringing to the Richmond community is Virginia Commonwealth University,” said LeClairRyan co-founder Gary D. LeClair. “Whether it’s through the students that they’re graduating, the da Vinci Center, the Intellectual Property Foundation and tech transfer, or just the excitement of all the young people in Richmond, VCU is clearly a catalyst for the entrepreneurial surge that we’re having in Richmond.”

VCU Pre-X is also seeking corporate sponsorships at $10,000 each. Corporate sponsors will be represented at the program’s Demo Day on April 20, 2018, and may also provide mentors and judges to work with student-led companies.

For more information or to apply, visit http://www.davincicenter.vcu.edu/pre-x/.