Incubator teaches student entrepreneurs at college

Thirteen Middlebury College students are spending their January term learning about entrepreneurship from the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies, a Burlington business incubator.

To qualify, the students must have a business of their own to promote. About a third of the students in this year’s class are generating revenue already, according to VCET President David Bradbury.

Bradbury and Vice President Sam Roach-Gerber teach the course, which is in its ninth year.

One of the students, James Heath, is building a website called Dormplex that allows students to offer goods and services to others on their campus. Heath, a sophomore, last week said he and his partners planned to launch a beta version of the website this week at the Claremont Colleges in California before launching it at Middlebury in February. (One of his partners attends Pitzer College, one of the seven Claremont Colleges.)

Heath said he hopes the class teaches him some of the foundations of building a company.

As part of the course, students go on field trips and work on their business plans. They are taught selling, accounting, pricing and how to raise capital, Bradbury said. The course includes guest appearances from venture capitalists and other entrepreneurs.

By the end, students decide whether to pursue their business while in college, and about a third of them go on to do so, according to Bradbury.

One concept he and Roach-Gerber teach the students, Bradbury said, is to discover their customers.

“And that means going out and talking to people that aren’t your roommate or your mom or your teammate,” he said. They have to prove that their idea is an opportunity — something that they can make money on repeatedly, and that they can scale so that they can support a team.

Bradbury said VCET helps companies get started at as many as six colleges in the state, but he sees Middlebury as the best entrepreneurial campus in Vermont.

“They’ve focused on student creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship for well over a decade now,” he said. “It is an unexpected place of entrepreneurial energy.”

Heath, who is from Detroit, agreed. 

“I think it’s probably one of the best places in the country,” he said.

Middlebury launched its first entrepreneurship program about 15 years ago, said Heather Neuwirth Lovejoy, director of Middlebury’s Innovation Hub. She said the college provides student entrepreneurs with courses, mentorship, funding and space.

“It’s a really amazing vehicle to show students how much Vermont has to offer,” she said of the January course.

One of the more recognizable entrepreneurs to come out of Middlebury is Corinne Prevot, who founded Skida, the Burlington ski hat company. She grew the company while at Middlebury, though Bradbury said she did not take his course.

Senior Sophie Hiland, whose business Over Easy makes faux-fur hoods, uses the space Middlebury makes available in its Old Stone Mill to run her company. She took the January entrepreneurship course last year.

“Getting together with other students and mentors to actually talk through challenges and commiserate was really valuable,” she said.

Hiland, who grew up in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago, said it’s unlikely that she’ll stay in Vermont to run her company after graduating. She plans to move to New York and focus on getting a job in elementary education. But she said she plans to continue running Over Easy on the side.

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