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Duke Entrepreneurs Advance Projects in Summer Accelerator

Published: 2 weeks ago | 0 comments

The participants in Duke I&E’s inaugural Summer Accelerator, which concluded last week, kicked off every morning the same way. “If you’re here, you have to yell with us,” said Howie Rhee, Duke I&E’s Managing Director of Student Programs. So we stood up, and on the count of three we yelled in unison at the top of our lungs. It did set the tone: enthusiastic, open, and energetic, if slightly startling for those nearby the classroom.

These Duke students and recent alums are all working on very different projects, but they share an entrepreneurial spirit and a drive to change the world.

Accelerator Students

Clark Bulleit ’19, Beryl Baldwin ’20, and Kevin Gehsmann ’19

Beryl Baldwin ’20 had a breast cancer scare at 23, leading her to a mission to normalize bodily self-awareness and self-care. She’s been working on a realistic model of a breast containing a tumor to teach young women to perform regular self-exams. Current models for doctors are expensive, some costing up to $500 each; Beryl is working to produce a discreet, low-cost product that can be distributed en masse and help shift the culture. She says the models have the added benefit of serving as stress-relief objects: “Whenever my friends come over, they’re like, ‘Do you have any boobs I can play with?'”

Antonia Taline de Souza Mendonca, who goes by Tali, is a second-year MBA student at Fuqua who cofounded Balné Brazil, the first Brazilian swimwear brand that’s ethical and handmade. Balné won CASE’s 2019 launch pad competition, and Tali joined Fuqua’s Program 4 Entrepreneurs to work on the business. Watching a video showing the swimsuits being made, she smiled and told me the workers make about 50% more money than at other Brazilian manufacturers.

Clark Bulleit ’19 and Kevin Gehsmann ’19, who played football for Duke, used their engineering background to create a brace for teammate Daniel Jones after he fractured his clavicle last September. They collaborated with the team’s medical personnel and utilized the Innovation Co-Lab and other Duke resources to create a custom product that would maximize security and mobility—enabling the quarterback to return to the field in just three weeks. Based on that experience, the two cofounded Protect3d, which uses 3D-printing technology to create anatomically fitting padding designed to prevent and protect injuries. They’re aiming to make this technology fast and affordable so it can be used in training rooms everywhere.

The Accelerator provided these and other teams an intensive atmosphere and customized resources and support to work on their projects all day, every day.

“I wanted to work on [my project] all the time, but I’m a Duke undergrad,” Beryl said. “I have other things going on!” The Accelerator, she explained, allowed her to immerse herself in her work and focus on constant growth. “In our eight weeks together, I’ve made an astronomical amount of progress.”

For Tali, the Accelerator provided a valuable sense of community. “It’s hard to be an entrepreneur, and this support is so valuable… I’ve learned and grown more here in two months than I did in a year of typical classes.”

Rather than having a set curriculum, the Accelerator was designed to meet participants where they were and help them address issues as they arose. Some students’ projects are further along than others’: Ray Liu ’19 is continuing to work on PeerKonnect, the peer tutoring company he founded while at Duke; Alan Ma, a second-year MBA student at Fuqua, is working with faculty members to commercialize CRISPR gene editing technology. Despite having eight years of sales experience, he still benefited from Accelerator’s communal environment and team support. During the program’s second week, he had to come up with an investor pitch and was able to practice on the cohort.

Emphasizing community and personal growth alongside professional progress, the Accelerator included enrichment activities to promote team building, wellness, and stress management. Participants began their experience on the challenge course at the UNC Outdoor Education Center, benefited from Koru Mindfulness sessions throughout their two months together, and gathered with peers from nearby universities for events like a walk-and-learn about Durham’s black business history and community.

The Accelerator also provided some participants a much-needed critical lens for their work. During the first week, teams did a lot of product testing, scoring, and pitching.

“I learned right away how important customer discovery is,” said Jordan Burstion ’20 with a laugh. “I hadn’t done enough of it.” She had already launched a mobile app to help people self-diagnose hair issues, but the Accelerator’s early activities made her rethink whether an app was necessary. Now, having decided to focus on black college-age women with curly hair—and having interviewed 45 women—she’s not sure what her product will be. The next step for Jordan, a chemistry major, will be to design a research project that supports her work.

Accelerator Students

Jordan Burstion ’20 and Beryl Baldwin ’20

“Pivots are so common in startups,” Howie said, “and it’s extremely important that people are working on the right project for them. A startup really needs to align with your personal values.”

Some pivots happen when an entrepreneur learns more about a need and how it can be met—this was the case for Erikson Nichols ’20, a baseball player and pre-med student. His original project was meant to offer neurosurgery students virtual reality training that incorporated haptic feedback. However, through conversations with numerous people in the medical field, he saw a different way his idea could be applied.

Doctors were making physical models of brains for pre-surgical planning, but Erikson saw a way these models could be improved: use 3D printing and molds to create completely translucent, patient-specific brain models based on scans, and then overlay these physical models with augmented reality projections. This method allows doctors to hold up their phones in order to visualize virtual patient-specific data (aneurism, tumor, vasculature, electrode projections) within a physical model—in effect creating a completely custom model to use for pre-operative visualization. The need Erikson observed enabled him to adapt his work, creating his new augmented reality company, MesnAR.

Many participants cited the personal connections made possible by the Accelerator as having greatly impacted their projects.

At a point when she was frustrated by the difficulties she was having finding the right materials for her models, Beryl spoke with Melissa Bernstein ’87, CEO and cofounder of Melissa & Doug, who also serves on Duke I&E’s advisory board. Melissa recounted having similar frustrations finding materials for stuffed animals—and shared how she’d visited a factory in China where she could see and touch all of the materials for herself. Inspired, Beryl buckled down, and within a matter of weeks she’d found just the right gel to fill the models with, along with just the right imitation skin for the exterior. The lesson? “If you want it to be better, make it better,” Beryl said.

Kevin and Clark were able to speak with Kyle Mumma (Trinity ’13, Fuqua ’18), Founder and CEO of NextPlay, who develops customized career development programs for college athletics departments. Based on his experiences, he was able to advise them about some of the challenges associated with university athletics programs, better preparing them for their meetings with trainers.

The Accelerator also enabled the participants to help each other—role playing sales conversations, doing customer discovery, sharing resources, and using each other’s expertise.

Daniel Getman ’19, who majored in neuroscience and minored in chemistry and biology, is working on a spray that helps restore the appetites of chemotherapy patients. He was having trouble finding interviewees until Erikson, who works at the Duke Cancer Center, suggested that Daniel simply sit in the waiting room and ask people if they’d like to be interviewed. When Daniel was reluctant to go alone, Erikson went with him—now Daniel has interviewed 107 patients.

Kevin, working intently on a 3D model on his laptop, said he and Clark were working on something for Beryl—they’d volunteered to help her 3D print a mold that would produce models of the correct shape and thickness. “She was having to make her models using bowls from Target that were the wrong shape,” Kevin said. “So we’re taking her to the Co-Lab.”

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