Emerson Launch, the College’s startup incubator, is back this fall with new ventures and some new initiatives to get more students involved in the program, and with entrepreneurship in a broader sense.
“Last year for me was a good opportunity to learn, because it was really like being in a startup myself as I watched how the year unfolded,” she said.
Originally, Launch was conceived as more of an accelerator for students who had a strong sense of their ventures and business models. But as Waters realized, “it’s a rare student who comes in with something like that and also says, ‘I want to go to classes and earn a degree.’”
Today’s Launch is closer to an incubator, where students who have problems they want to solve can work with Waters, Launch’s mentors, and each other to find ways to fix them.
“So someone might come in with an idea, and then come up with a different idea, and that’s O.K.,” she said.
There’s an adage in the startup community that says, “Fall in love with the problem, not the solution,” Waters said. Kayla Serra and Noah Spahn are learning just what that means.
Serra ’19, a Media Arts Production major, is visually impaired and uses a white cane, and she knows how beat up it gets after regular use, especially in a city. She also knows how expensive it is to replace.
The Massachusetts Commission for the Blind supplies people with just two canes per lifetime, Serra said. So she and her project partner, Spahn ’19, a Marketing Communications major, came up with an idea for a universal repair kit that users can buy for 15 percent of the cost of a new cane.
They’ve done market research and even worked with a mechanical engineering student from MIT to create a prototype. But new models keep coming out, so the kits have to constantly be adjusted to accommodate new designs.
Serra and Spahn say Emerson Launch is a “real springboard.”
“We’re taking skills we’re learning in class and applying them to real scenarios, and we are making mistakes, but it’s a real opportunity to learn and hopefully make some sort of a difference,” Spahn said.
In order to “develop a stronger pipeline” so students who are less focused on starting a business immediately can still think like entrepreneurs, Waters said Launch is collaborating with two classes that are focused on finding solutions to problems: Susanne Althoff’s Publishing Innovation and Ja-Nae Duane’s Launching an Arts Business. Students in Duane’s class will partner with Launch to present early-stage concepts at a showcase held at WeWork in December.
Waters has also been spending time studying other institutions’ entrepreneurial cultures, and has come away wanting to create a student-run entrepreneurial organization at Emerson. To that end, she said she’s willing to put money toward getting that off the ground.
“What all these schools have is…some sort of entrepreneur club, [and] students who participate in those clubs drive the entrepreneurial activity at those schools,” she said. “You have to let it bubble up.”
Noé Álvarez’s startup concept has already bubbled up—sort of literally.
The MFA candidate in Creative Writing wants to launch a company that makes tejuino, a little-known traditional Mexican beverage made from fermented maize (corn). Álvarez said tejuino has been used ceremonially since pre-Columbian times, and his mother grew up drinking it in the state of Colima. Recently, it’s become somewhat popular in Álvarez’s hometown of Yakima, Washington.
His first concept was for a running shoe—he went so far as to get a provisional patent on a new design. He sent out some emails to people within the College to get advice about starting a business and was directed to Waters, who in turn put him in touch with Launch Advisory Board member Mark Donovan ’89, an entrepreneur, seed stage investor and advisor, and an Emerson College Overseer.
Then Álvarez said he ran into some obstacles with the shoe design and swiftly had to decide whether he could work on his venture and his graduate degree at the same time. He decided to pivot to tejuino, a product that he says has health benefits, but also holds deep personal connections for Álvarez.
“I realized that it’s an extension of who I am and where I came from,” he said.
He admits he has no idea if tejuino would take off in Boston or in other parts of the country, and he still has “a lot of homework” to do. But Launch is the place to do just that.
Students interested in forming an entrepreneurial club can contact Cathy Waters at email@example.com.