Young entrepreneurs with promising startups find pragmatic guidance and inspiration with the Tufts Venture Accelerator
Masrura Oishi, F23, wants to change the world for teenagers. Her startup nonprofit, Baak Network, is a women-led initiative that matches adolescent girls in Bangladesh—girls at critical turning points in their lives—with professional Bangladeshi women mentors from diverse industries all over the world.
Tufts engineers Srijith Rajeev, EG22, Shishir Rao, EG20, and Rahul Rajendran, EG22, are a team eager to prove what artificial intelligence is capable of doing for road safety. Their idea: Tessera Intelligence, an AI-based traffic analytics company, holds the promise of delivering high-quality images for traffic forecasting regardless of weather conditions like low light, rain, and fog.
Paloma Velasco, A23 (BFA), founded Malflora Studio with the wish "to make a difference in how Latine people are perceived in the media and to radically undertake machismo through the very nature of embodying what it means to be a malflora," she said. Mia Palomba, A25 (BFA), and Cecilia Orozco, A24, also multi-talented artists have joined Paloma on this journey. “We hope to empower the next generation of Latinas to be limitless,” said Velasco.
As aspiring entrepreneurs with promising, potentially life-changing ideas, these three teams this summer have merged at the Tufts Venture Accelerator, a program of the Derby Entrepreneurship Center. The 10-week program is putting six teams to work translating their dreams into viable enterprises by guiding participants through key stages of venture creation, from redefining their ideas and developing their marketing strategy to building budgets and staffing up.
“It’s teaching us to reach for the stars, and, at the same time, it’s very pragmatic,” said Palomba. “We’re learning to think about our trajectory—what specific steps we need to evolve, and where we want to go.”
This summer marks a historic milestone for the program. Earlier this year, Earle Yaffa, E61, his daughter Kim Hartman, J85, and her husband, Alan Hartman, and the Joseph H. Flom Foundation, made a $1.2 million gift that will expand the program’s reach over the next decade.
The gift will fund venture awards and programming and strengthen the program’s commitment to access and equity by relieving participants of the financial pressure to take full-time summer jobs.
“We are proud to support future entrepreneurs as they continue to challenge themselves and change the world through the Tufts Venture Accelerator,” said Yaffa.
Investing in Innovation
Earle Yaffa, E61, and Kim Hartman, J85, have contributed new resources to the Tufts Venture Accelerator. Yaffa, Hartman, her husband Alan Hartman, and the Joseph H. Flom Foundation, this spring showed their support with a generous gift to the Derby Entrepreneurship Center.
“We are grateful for this opportunity to scale up our support for young entrepreneurs,” said Elaine Chen, director of the Derby Entrepreneurship Center at Tufts and Cummings Family Professor of the Practice in Entrepreneurship. “This gift will help the center empower a new generation of entrepreneurs to realize their dreams, and their impact in society, through new venture creation.”
Tina Weber, program director for the Tufts Venture Accelerator and a lecturer at the Derby Entrepreneurship Center, said strategic investments will include broadening the array of experts who are central to the program’s success; she especially looks forward to bringing on board diverse mentors and instructors who will help reinforce equity and inclusion goals. Another impact of the gift is increasing the size of the grants awarded to students as part of seeding their ideas.
“Our job is to help nurture ideas,” Weber said. “With this new funding, we enrich all that we offer. We will be able to make Venture Accelerator accessible to a wider spectrum of students and expand our network potential investors, who, in turn, can jettison ideas into the marketplace. We are all about accelerating growth and bringing in the right participants and the people who match their needs will have enormous impact. It means we not only strengthen the program, but also the entire Tufts entrepreneurial community.”
Since its beginning seven years ago, the Tufts Venture Accelerator has been making a profound impact on ideas by turning students’ knowledge and passion into viable ventures. Aspiring entrepreneurs in the past have gone on to win the Tufts $100K New Ventures Competition and to secure investments.
Daniel Weinstein, E18, CEO of Lura Health, looks back on his own summer experience and recalls how that encouragement helped lay a cornerstone for his team’s pioneering medical technology: wireless, tooth-mounted sensors that track key diagnostics in oral health with saliva. Weinstein and co-founder Noah Hill, E21, Lura Health CTO, last year earned a shout out on Forbes 30 Under 30.
“The most valuable aspect of the Tufts Venture Accelerator,” said Weinstein, “was to work with other student-entrepreneurs and expert mentors to identify and test the hypotheses of our venture in a judgment-free, collaborative environment.”
Jean Pham, EG20, EG21, is grateful for how the program opened doors. She and her team developed the award-winning Cellens, a start-up advanced to pioneering bladder cancer diagnostic. “When I look back, what was most helpful for me at Venture Accelerator were the mentorships and connections I made,” she said. “To this day, I’m thankful for the conviction and encouragement we found at the Derby Entrepreneurship Center.”
One reason the Tufts Venture Accelerator works, said Chen, is that it gives participants a fast-paced and sharply focused structure; from the first week, starting with an entrepreneurship bootcamp, it concentrates attention on the essentials required to move a dream to reality. And that model that works well with summer session; without the pressures of school, “participants can focus 100% of their energy on their project,” said Chen.
Workshops zero in on essentials, covering topics such as leadership, team building, the perfect pitch, branding, market research, and market segmentation. They work in concert with perspectives shared from outside experts, many of them alumni from the Boston area, who can reiterate must-have strategies – as well as speak personally about the hard work and stumbling blocks that may be ahead.
“I call it diaspora support,” said Chen, explaining that while graduates invariably fan out into the working world, Tufts welcomes them back with congenial workshops and lunches. “We are connecting and building entrepreneurial people. They are not going to succeed alone.”
As an engineer, Rajeev said those conversations with outside advisors have opened a whole new world of ideas and perspectives, especially given that his team, has been as so intently focused on engineering for a dozen years—they all pursued master’s degrees at the University of Texas at San Antonio and then doctoral degrees from the Tufts School of Engineering, where they have worked closely with, and been inspired by, Professor and Dean of Graduate Education Karen Panetta.
Informal conversations with these advisors are where the best ideas have surfaced so far. “We came here considering two or three market segments,” he said, “but we have three more that have come just by talking to people we otherwise would never have met.”
To help each team move quickly forward, the Tufts Venture Accelerator takes a concierge approach. Each team is eligible to earn an equity-free grant up to $10,000 per team to meet costs such as web hosting, digital marketing, travel and lodging for primary market research, and prototyping. The program also matches teams with sector specific mentors and potential investors.
“We really get to know the teams and what they need,” said Chen. “Every Monday we have a roundtable to hear how everybody is doing and encourage cross pollination. We meet with every team at least once a week to help them keep them accountable and keep the drum beat up.”
Another essential ingredient: “provocative conversations” to challenge participants to take a deep and honest look at how to communicate their vision that commands the attention.
“We’re educators, so our role is to challenge,” said Chen. “One of our first questions we ask our new participates is: ‘What’s your why? Why is this your fight? Why is this problem worth solving to you? Why are they important, and what do you need to be able to move it forward, and fast, come September?’”
“Many companies go out of business because they get ahead of themselves—they are not able to actually deliver,” added Weber. “Whatever resources you have, you want to use them efficiently and effectively at the right time. A logo or a PR campaign is great—but let’s make sure first that you have a solid foundation under you before you invest the time and money into them.”
Participants arrive at the Tufts Venture Accelerator with a range of experience; some have extensive coursework, others may have none, but all share a humble respect for their learning curve.
Oishi is no newcomer to the start-up arena. She has consulted multiple startups in their early stages and her research on startups in Dhaka’ won the best paper award at the 13th Asian Business Research Conference.
Still, to be her own boss, to take Baak Network to the next level, “I learned I was not asking the right questions.” Her “why” it needed more disciplined thought.
“I’ve seen all types of vague vision statements from my experience in nonprofits, so going into the Tufts Venture Accelerator I thought: ‘I’m all set.’ But then we were asked about how we were going to measure impact and I realized—wait, I do need that north star. It’s necessary to ask: how are you going to sustain this organization? How are you going to measure progress?”
The same awakening was eye opening in many ways for the engineering team, intimidated at first “because we know nothing about business,” said Rajeev. “With every step we get closer to understanding what a business is—what it takes to actually implement an idea.”
Velasco has appreciated the circle of support she has found from her peers and her instructors. “I’ve learned that takes a village to create a world I didn’t have when I was growing up, to create experiences that are more inclusive,” she said. “When I heard the word ‘trailblazer’ applied to our vision, that seems to be a word that fits, and our work is not going to be easy.”
And while every summer brings a new wave of students bearing bright ideas, one factor remains constant, said Weber. “I am always impressed by the original ideas of Tufts students, how committed they are to doing the hard work, and how passionate they are about seeing a problem solved,” she said. “They come in with a ready-to-go entrepreneurial mindset that makes it a joy to work with them. I am sure, in the years ahead, we will continue to be amazed.”