Thursday April 27, 2017
“Entrepreneurship is neither a science nor an art. It is a practice.” This slice of wisdom is from renowned management consultant Peter Drucker and currently might be best understood by the finalists in the 2017 LaunchVT Competition. A community initiative by the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce (LCRCC), the competition’s goal is to provide entrepreneurs with an opportunity for exposure, education, and experience to start their businesses. Among this year’s seven finalists are three South Burlington residents who pitched their businesses to LaunchVT and won the chance to vie for the overall prize. Mads Almassalkhi, Max Robbins, and Linley Shaw will each have eight minutes to pitch their business to a panel of judges May 12 at the LaunchVT Final Competition held at Main Street Landing in Burlington. One of the seven finalists will receive the first place prize of $30,000 and over $40,000 of in-kind services. A second-place winner will receive $15,000 and over $20,000 of in-kind services. However, Almassalkhi, Robbins, and Shaw need not worry. The LaunchVT program paired each finalist with seasoned mentors from the entrepreneurial community, who work with the finalists’ teams to help them prepare. The winning business will have demonstrated exceptional potential in today’s market, including scalability and the potential to generate significant employment in Vermont.
“We’re excited by the diversity of ideas this year and looking forward to watching the companies learn from each other and grow,” says Katie Taylor, director of workforce development and entrepreneurship for LCRCC. Taylor, who also serves as the LaunchVT director, notes the program has many success stories, including last year’s winner Ogee, a company that creates luxury organic skincare products. She reports, “Ogee’s products have been featured in People.com and Allure.com.” Last year’s second prize winner is Wheel Pad, a company that builds eco-friendly 200-square foot accessible bedroom and bathroom modules that can be temporarily attached to an existing home. According to Taylor, Wheel Pad recently won first prize for temporary spaces in the World Architecture News Small Spaces Competition.
For residents Almassalkhi, Robbins, and Shaw, the three have already met the initial requirements of the LaunchVT program; pitching a company at an early stage startup, one that can create significant impact and scale quickly. Now, vying for the top prize, they prepare for the finals.
Mads Almassalkhi is one of the four co-founders of Packetized Energy, along with Paul Hines, Jeff Frolik, and Andrew Giroux. The team met as colleagues at the University of Vermont (UVM). Almassalkhi says they are bringing to market products that leverage patent-pending real-time control technology for managing distributed energy resources like electric water heaters, batteries, and electric vehicles. In June 2016, the four co-founders submitted a proposal to the ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) NODES program, funded by the Department of Energy. That proposal sought “to advance their packetized energy management technology to provide valuable grid services to utilities and aggregators by leveraging a wide spectrum of flexible energy devices,” explains Almassalkhi, who says the core of the technology was originally developed by Frolik and Hines.
“With ARPA-E’s award and support, we thought it was a good time to commercialize the ideas, so we co-founded the company Packetized Energy Technologies in May 2016,” reports Almassalkhi. The three then brought on as their chief engineer Giroux, who Almassalkhi describes as a phenomenal UVM grad.
LCRCC’s Taylor remarks, “The way Americans receive and consume energy is ripe for innovation, and Packetized Energy is working to be at the forefront of that growth.”
Born and raised in Copenhagen, Denmark, Almassalkhi says he has lived, studied, or worked in Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois since 2000. He eventually landed in South Burlington when he was hired by UVM’s College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences as an assistant professor in 2014. He considers working in education an honor, adding, “I have fallen in love with teaching, which should not be surprising since I come from a family of teachers.”
In addition, Almassalkhi works on several funded projects from the Department of Energy and local industry. Passionate about his efforts, he says, “I hope my research results can find their way into practical hands to help close the gap between academia and industry and revolutionize the way the U.S. does energy.”
Almassalkhi calls himself a serial entrepreneur as Packetized Energy is his second attempt at an energy startup company. He expresses appreciation for the LaunchVT program, saying, “I have learned that the most important part of bringing a world-changing technology to market, and to the masses, is to bring it in front of people with startup, entrepreneurial, and investor know-how to learn from their feedback.”
Winning the competition would be helpful, says Almassalkhi, adding, “However, more important than the actual cash is access to all the amazing services that allow us to hone our message and streamline our businesses development processes.”
Almassalkhi has three children with his wife Brittany. The two were married during his undergraduate studies at the University of Cincinnati. From there, they went to Ann Arbor where he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. Almassalkhi describes his move to the Green Mountain State as an “amazing opportunity” and says, “It’s been a wild ride as a tenure-track faculty, serial entrepreneur, husband, and father.” He reports any extra time is spent with family from introducing his kids to skiing to the “steady stream of Jedi lightsaber duels.”
A born and bred South Burlingtonian, Max Robbins’ passion is trying to create positive change in the world. “I’m not interested in making money, I’m interested in creating something that will truly help people.” This is an ambitious goal for anyone, let alone a 21-year-old. But Robbins seems to have the entrepreneurial gene to get the job done. That and, the key ingredient espoused by many a successful person, perseverance. Robbins first heard about LaunchVT a year ago and tried to apply. He recognized that his business was not ready at that time and he and his co-founder Peter Silverman used the experience to their benefit, attending events and networking. Robbins recalls, “I remember thinking how amazing and prestigious the competition seemed and, after a year, our business was much more established, so we tried to get in again.”
Robbins and Silverman met as roommates in their freshman year at UVM. Their business, Beacon, was selected by the college for the LaunchVT Collegiate Competition. “Peter and I have complementary skill sets. Where he is more outspoken and creative, I am more focused on implementation and logistics. This balance makes us work very well together, because we each are strong in the aspects the other is weak in,” says Robbins.
According to their website, Beacon is “an interactive marketplace for businesses looking for an extra set of hands and students looking to grow their work experience.” Beacon began as a job board for college students to find local opportunities for work. The co-founders’ inspiration was personal, as they both report struggling to find jobs themselves. Robbins says, “We wanted a way to connect with local startups and small businesses to gain experience, so we made a product that we thought would solve our problem. As we started marketing our idea, it resonated with a lot of students and it started to grow.”
Different than internships, Beacon provides options for students looking for work. Robbins explains, “Students want flexible jobs where they can learn and practice technical skills while making some money.” Robbins says their website, Beaconvt.com, has helped hundreds of local students find projects and small jobs in the past six months, adding, “Since launching, we discovered that we could sell versions of our platform directly to colleges across the country.”
Taylor is enthusiastic for Beacon’s potential, “I’m excited to see the way local college students are using their own drive and innovation to try to address what some refer to as Vermont’s ‘brain drain.’” For their part, Robbins sees being part of the LaunchVT Competition as a privilege and, if they win, reports the funds will be used to expand their current development and sales team so their business continues to grow
Linley Shaw co-founded her start-up with Charlotte Reider-Smith. The two were part of MiddCORE, Middlebury College’s innovation and entrepreneurship summer program, where each student presents a business idea. Shaw says her concept was to lend dresses from her own closet; ones she didn’t often wear. She adds, “On the other side, Charlotte wanted to access certain fashionistas she admired at school. We came together to design a solution that solved both of our needs.” That solution became Share to Wear, a formal and special occasion clothing rental service for college students.
“The sharing aspect of our business allows us to rent out high-end items at a fraction of the retail price. In our pitch, we introduce the problem of buying more clothes than we need for more than we should because our culture revolves around fast fashion. Fashion may be fast, but our wallets and our resources aren’t quite up to speed, especially for college students. Our solution is to create one big closet that is accessible, affordable, and still fashionable,” says Shaw. Her concise and interesting explanation speaks well of Shaw’s entrepreneurial ability to effectively capture and pitch a business concept.
Shaw moved to South Burlington when she was five years old and is currently a film and media culture major at Middlebury. She is also part of the college’s field hockey and ski teams. While in high school, Shaw worked at Monelle in Burlington and says, “I saw firsthand how the ‘look good feel good’ mantra comes to life. I have always loved working and establishing relationships with customers.” Last summer, she worked in San Francisco at a start-up skincare company. She says, “I had so much exposure to the start-up culture and the different aspects of business that I felt ready to start my own.”
LCRCC’s Taylor sees Share to Wear as capitalizing on a shift in the way millennials view consumption. She notes the Share to Wear team “has done an incredible job of connecting with leaders in the fashion industry.”
If the team wins, they plan to use the funds to scale their business beyond Vermont and are hopeful to eventually establish headquarters in Burlington. In addition, Shaw says there is a bigger goal in mind. “Beyond the service Share to Wear brings to campus, we’re excited about the prospect of establishing a platform that could eventually enable women across the country to learn to run a business while they are still in college. If I can create more opportunities for young women in entrepreneurship, I would consider Share to Wear a success.”
Honoring her roots, Shaw acknowledges, “I would never be where I am today if it wasn’t for the people that supported me growing up in South Burlington!”
Almassalkhi, Robbins, and Shaw are all well on their way to success. Clearly, just being selected as finalists means their potential has been recognized, a boon to any start-up. As Almassalkhi says, “LaunchVT provides a wonderful opportunity for constructive feedback to strengthen our products and business development, regardless of winning the competition.”
SOURCE: Carole Vasta Folley