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From ideas to reality: Go inside Vandy’s ideas machine

Posted by on Monday, December 13, 2021 in News.

By   –  Research Director, Nashville Business Journal
Dec 9, 2021, 4:32pm EST

Vanderbilt University’s Innovation Center, The Wond’ry, opened in November 2016. The center provides support, including training, programming, makerspaces, microgrants and access to a network of professionals, to about 300 ideas each year. Enrollees to the program have brought in over $55 million in outside funding for their ventures. Here we talk with the Wond’ry’s program director and a student that has completed several of Wond’ry’s programs.

Deanna Meador, Director of entrepreneurship, Wond’ry

How are enrollees chosen? What does the process look like, from application to selection? The Wond’ry offers a number of different program and resources to support university-affiliated innovators (from Vanderbilt, as well as other universities and colleges in the Nashville area) with their ideas. … For each program, there is an application process and a group of people, often comprising entrepreneurs, business leaders, faculty members, investors and such that help us make the acceptance decisions. We typically open applications for our programming a month to a month and a half before a program begins. We run cohorts every semester.

What misconceptions do you think students have to overcome to be successful with their startup? Not a misconception exactly, but a very common challenge for students is balancing the demands of being a full-time student with the demands of launching and running a venture. College is a great time to test an idea and bring it to life while you have  access to vast array of supports, but you need the right people and resources around you.

A common misconception is that you can have an idea and immediately get venture capital funding. It almost never works this way in reality. There is also often a lack of understanding of the other potential pathways for funding an idea, from grants to bootstrapping to crowdfunding. Getting venture capital makes headlines, but these other often less-publicized mechanisms are great options and often better options depending on a venture’s stage and the goals of the founding team.

Another often overlooked part of an innovation ecosystem is the fact that not everyone needs to be the founder.Ventures need great people outside of just those that had the idea or started the company, there are many ways to contribute to a startup without needing to be the founder.

What finance stage are your current students’ companies: pre-seed, seed, first-third rounds? We typically work with ventures in the pre-seed and seed stage. Our program graduates often stay in touch as their ventures grow and while we are not often actively working with them in structured programming as they move past their seed round of funding, we are almost always still in contact with them.

We also have a good number of ideas each year that are funded from grant-funding, such as SBIR and STTR awards, rather than leveraging equity-based funding options at least throughout their earliest stages.

What industries are your current students’ companies in? Most of our programs are agnostic of industry. We see everything from apparel companies to edtech to health and wellness to consumer products to fintech to cybersecurity and med devices. We do see a lot of deep technology ventures, as well as biomedical innovations.

Noah Robinson, Vanderbilt PhD student and founder of Very Real Help

How did you first come up with the idea for your company? At the age of 13, I became depressed and escaped into a virtual world like World of Warcraft. I avoided reality, lied to my parents, failed my classes and chased dopamine hits through 8,000 hours of gameplay, just to survive in the real world. But in the virtual world I felt like myself for the very first time, enough to eventually come out the closet. This experience made me think: What if we could use technology to create a world, similar to World of Warcraft, that was as effective as therapy in reducing anxiety and depression? That’s why I founded Very Real Help.

What do you hope to get out of the program? From the moment I entered, everyone was incredibly supportive of my ideas and invested in my success. The folks at the Wond’ry connected me to the NSF Innovation CORPS program, first through the small site grant and then through the national program.

What message do you have for Nashville’s business community? My main message to Nashville’s business community is: thank you. I’m so grateful to be in a vibrant entrepreneurial environment that is also incredibly supportive. … I’m excited to pay it forward to future entrepreneurs.

Get involved

How can the business community get involved? We have many ways the local community can get involved with supporting innovators.

  • Innovation Advocates. These are people that are willing to be interviewed by a person or team in our programming as the participant is conducting customer discovery for the idea they are working on. These interviews are typically 15-20 minutes in length and are gold to the participants.
  • Innovation Mentors. These are people that agree to serve a two-year term to mentor our innovators. This can include mentoring a specific team for the duration of a program (usually a minimum of 30 minutes a week for five to nine weeks) or being available for sessions with our innovators as needed. We have a pool of [around] 80 mentors and are always looking for those that want to leverage their expertise and give back in this way.
  • Competition Judges. We host a number of competitions throughout the year and are always looking for engaging people that are great at asking questions and providing feedback.
  • Speakers. We host speaker series throughout the year and love bringing in members of our local business community.