Binghamton University accelerator program is school for startups
Koffman Southern Tier Incubator runs boot camp for entrepreneurs
By the time he graduated from Binghamton University, Anthony Tapias ’17 already had the kind of business success most students only dream of.
While earning a degree in financial economics, he had helped launch an app called TruNeed, which lets users post services and rent items nearby. Encouraged by TruNeed’s success, Tapias was on the lookout for the next big thing.
He found his inspiration in the kitchen, where he enjoys experimenting with new dishes.
“I’ve been going pretty crazy with different salmon recipes lately,” Tapias says.
What he and fraternity brother Michael Tseng, a computer science major, cooked up was Next Meal Plan, an artificial-intelligence, text-messaging bot that could recommend new meals based on the user’s diet.
“We wanted something that would outline the entire week ahead of you. And if you didn’t follow a recommendation, it’d readjust the recommended meal formula for the rest of your day and week to help you stay on target with your dietary goals,” Tapias says.
He was ready to jump right in. Besides ambition, experience and vision, he had a support network in the University’s Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Partnerships, which helped him launch TruNeed.
One member of that network is Dan Mori, entrepreneurial guru and, more formally, director of business incubation at the Koffman Southern Tier Incubator in downtown Binghamton.
Mori was starting an accelerator program for entrepreneurs there and suggested Tapias try it out.
If you build it, will they come?
Accelerator programs are like boot camps for fledgling businesses. Entrepreneurs and their ideas are put through rigorous challenges. Products are scrutinized and owners learn to think like consumers. Success is not guaranteed.
“Ideas are really, really exciting,” Mori says. “And when you get an idea, there’s this natural tendency to run really fast and just start developing it and putting a lot of work, time, money and effort into it to take it to market before seeing if the market wants it.”
Mori, an entrepreneur himself, calls this the “If you build it, they will come” plan, and noticed it is a common challenge that startups face.
“Generally, that’s a really ineffective way to grow a business.”
As a building, the incubator has 35,000 square feet of offices, high-tech wet and dry labs, and co-working spaces — everything a new business could need. But Mori wanted to provide more than just brick-and-mortar space to startups. He wanted to provide a process for entrepreneurs to develop ideas before taking them to market.
What he came up with is the accelerator program — a three-month course designed to help new companies discover who their potential customers are and what need their product fulfills.
The program, which had its first cohort in fall 2017, is headed by Mori, with assistance from Entrepreneur in Residence Anthony Frontera ’75, MBA ’80. The program is open to people within and outside of the Binghamton University community, and the curriculum is structured yet flexible enough to accommodate participants who are also students.
Over the course of the program, participants explore what their market looks like, diving into customer discovery and conducting interviews with their potential audience. They also explore customer distribution channels and revenue models. Graduates are then encouraged to apply to the incubator program for further development.
“This program will either help you validate product-market fit and validate that it’s worth pursuing, or it’ll tell you there isn’t a fit. And we then can help you figure out how you’ll pivot,” Mori says.
“You’re either going to succeed or you’re going to learn.”
Building a better (virtual) reality
Growing up in Watkins Glen, N.Y., Matthew Gill would build bicycles from scratch. His love of making things with his hands eventually led to a hobby of restoring cars. He bought and restored a 1973 Triumph GT6 Mk III during his junior year of high school and still drives it today.
Gill takes pride in his car and the work he’s put into it. He’s someone who looks at the pieces and sees potential. That’s what he sees in the virtual reality (VR) simulators he built from scratch — potential.
An electrical engineering major and senior, Gill is the co-founder of Enhance VR, a startup that looks to, well, “enhance” virtual-reality experiences. On top of classes and his company, Gill also runs cross-country and track, and is a Watson peer advisor.
When asked how he finds time to do everything, Gill just laughs and says, “I don’t.”
What began with building a VR simulator out of PVC parts for a 24-hour hackathon competition became a business venture that now consumes the majority of his time and mental energy.
His current simulators are essentially metal copies of the original PVC simulators, and the potential for what they could be used for is limitless. Participating in the accelerator program has allowed Gill to focus on that potential.
“The program pushed us to ask, ‘What’s one product we’re doing really well?’ Let’s focus on one thing and do it really well instead of a bunch of things that are all over the place,” he says.
During the customer-discovery process, Gill learned of a need for motion simulators in the growing VR arcade industry. He hopes to create a universal simulator that arcades can use for a variety of VR games.
Gill’s simulators provide haptic, or touch, sensation, which a standard VR headset can’t. He believes he can help VR gaming move away from its gimmicky perception and into something that provides a more realistic and rewarding experience. While gaming is the current focus, he can’t help but get excited about other potential uses.
Whether it’s taking students on a virtual field trip to the Sistine Chapel, climbing a virtual rock wall or helping users get accustomed to the feeling of an autonomous car, Gill is constantly coming up with new ideas. And for each idea he’s come up with, he now applies the lessons learned in the accelerator program to determine the logistics of how to bring that idea to market.
During the program’s customer-discovery process, participants talk to potential audiences to learn if their product fulfills a need in the market. The catch is that you’re not supposed to disclose what the product is. Though challenging, Gill found the experience rewarding.
“How much further I could get to understanding a customer just by asking certain questions in certain styles and having a certain mindset going into it — that’s been a massive surprise to me, and I’ve changed the way I talk to people when it comes to my business,” he says.
Gill continues to utilize workspace at the incubator. On top of continuing to perfect the simulators, Gill says he and his team are just scratching the surface on creating a VR sci-fi experience for them, as well as looking at the possibility of developing technology to assist firefighters.
The fact that Gill is developing his business in Binghamton is significant. It was here, nearly a century ago, that Edwin A. Link created the famous “blue box” flight simulator on which countless pilots trained. The city has since been deemed “the birthplace of VR.”
“To have someone tell me that her father used to work at Link when she was a little girl and remembers using one of the original simulators is incredible. It’s nice to have those moments and talk to people who have an understanding of the potential this area has,” Gill says.
And as he continues to turn his ideas of virtual reality into an actual reality, Gill hopes his work can carry on Binghamton’s VR legacy.
Skin in the game
The idea of combining two unlike things is a theme that appears often in the story of Kathryn Cherny ’12.
Cherny is pairing her expertise in microbiology and her love of cosmetics to develop skincare products that are made using a combination of traditional soap-making techniques and cutting-edge science. The hope is that the products will help foster the growth of good bacteria, resulting in healthier skin.
“Maybe it’s not your skin that’s the problem, maybe it’s the microorganisms on it,” says Cherny, a microbiology doctoral student. “Researchers have noticed during outbreaks of psoriasis that the amount and the diversity of an organism on the skin changes and shifts. So the idea is to use these products to rebalance the skin.”
Similar to how some yogurts include probiotics to promote good gut health, Cherny wants to make skincare products with probiotics to promote better skin health. While a number of skincare companies claim to use probiotics, Cherny says they aren’t approaching it like a microbiologist would.
Probiotic products that are currently available use bacteria from soil or yogurt, which doesn’t make sense, she says, considering neither are native to skin. Cherny wants to research and utilize bacteria in her products that are actually associated with healthy skin.
Therefore, she’s decided to combine her microbiology background with the unfamiliar world of entrepreneurship, creating a company called microBELLA — which basically translates to a combination of “tiny” and “beauty.”
And because of the resources available to Binghamton students, she decided that now was the time to develop her idea. She began working with the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Partnerships, which led to new connections and opportunities. Before she knew it, she was taking soap-making classes, had laboratory space at the Koffman Southern Tier Incubator and was taking part in the accelerator program.
Not having a business background, Cherny found some aspects of the program challenging at first — particularly customer discovery.
“As a scientist, I was like, ‘Can I just have them fill out a bubble sheet so I can plot the results?’ and they said, ‘No, you want to have a conversation,’” she says, laughing.
But with practice comes confidence, and Cherny discovered how her products could help improve the lives of customers.
“I’ve talked to people who suffer from adult acne. They feel at this point that they shouldn’t have to deal with this anymore. They want to focus on other things in life instead of something they’ve focused on since they were 16. It’ll be nice to help people let some of that go,” she says.
Her first product line, Natural AF, was born of another lesson: “People really want simple,” she says. It’s also a nudge at companies that make “natural” products using ingredients that could be harmful to skin.
“I can tell you every single ingredient that’s in the soap I’m making,” Cherny says. “And I can tell you where it came from and how much is in it and if it’s organic, and that if your baby accidentally ate it, your baby would be OK.”
Still at the incubator, she’s currently using FDA-approved prebiotics to encourage the growth of “good” bacteria while she works on getting live probiotic compounds into her products. She has a network of family and friends who are testing her products, and looks to have a lotion and a soap for sale soon.
As a scientist, Cherny is no stranger to experiments not turning out how she expected, but running a business is an experiment she’s never conducted before. The accelerator program has been invaluable in teaching her business practices, but it’s also helped reinforce her confidence in her ability to not quit in the face of unfamiliar and daunting tasks.
“I’ve felt fear every step of the way. There’s constantly an, ‘I can’t do it!’ in my mind. But I haven’t quit yet. I really didn’t know that I could persist like this,” she says. “It’s been really cool to figure this out about myself.”
Tapias took Next Meal Plan into the accelerator program with confidence.
“I’ve already started a company before, and I thought I knew everything about it,” he says.
And then he hit the pause button.
Going through the customer-discovery process prompted him to put Next Meal Plan’s development on hold until he had a chance to dig deeper and learn what would be required to make the service successful.
“I was ready to just jump right in and spend money on a product that might not have even made any money,” Tapias says.
This is the value of an accelerator program — a chance to find some direction before sailing into uncharted waters.
“It gave me a totally different perspective on how to begin a business or grow an idea,” he says.
And if there is a main takeaway from the program, it’s that a pivot is not a failure.
“Don’t be afraid of the pivot. It’s not a bad thing. I think a lot of companies have their mind set on what they want to do, and they aren’t willing to look at what’s actually needed,” says Aubrey Nawrocki, former business development assistant during the incubator’s first year. “If you walk in a straight tunnel-vision path, it may not work out for you.”
The program has given Tapias the opportunity to both rethink Next Meal Plan and continue brainstorming new ideas. Inspired by his current job in recycling management in Queens, he’s working with some colleagues on ideas for bio-degradable water bottles.
“A lot of people say everything’s been thought of already,” he says. “But there’s still so many ideas and opportunities out there.”