Student-led startups see progress during Pioneering Summer program
University of Denver's Project X-ITE supports eight-week student opportunity
For the past eight weeks, two student ventures served as the inaugural participants in Pioneering Summer, an accelerator hosted by Project X-ITE at the University of Denver. From June through August, students interned, refined and grew their startups, and received mentorship, guidance and candid feedback from 19 experts, entrepreneurial founders and business leaders within Colorado’s innovation ecosystem.
Launched in 2015, Project X-ITE serves as the hub of innovation, technology and entrepreneurship at the DU, providing hands-on opportunities for students, faculty and the broader local community to collaborate.
The two companies participating in this pilot program included PocketChange – a platform for micro-donations triggered through social content – and Wanderlift, a ride-sharing company for longer distances. Both upstarts were launched when their founders were first-year students.
Project X-ITE is part of a growing trend within academia in which cross-disciplinary entrepreneurship programs help students launch successful startups.
A recent article in Forbes noted that increasingly, higher education is transforming the learning process “by taking advantage of new university-funded entrepreneurship centers, accelerator programs and graduating at ‘escape velocity’ by putting business plans and capital in place before their caps and gowns.”
Pioneering Summer was created to highlight and accelerate student-led ventures by connecting them to local leaders. Project X-ITE provided the startups with stipends for housing and business expenses, then helped the students secure experiential internships at Choozle, Inspirato, Oniqua and Spire.
"Our interns from Project X-ITE brought enthusiasm and passion for entrepreneurism unlike anything I'd ever seen before,” says Michael Gellman, CEO of Spire Digital, which oversaw three DU students. “It was amazing to see our interns take what they had learned in school and apply it to the real world. I was blown away by how prepared they were to create real businesses."
Earlier this year, Project X-ITE opened the X-Lab, a coworking space in the middle of campus that has become the hub for student collaboration, serving as the Project’s home base. Students spent countless hours together, working on their companies and making tangible progress. Their internships provided valuable hands-on experience in high-growth companies in Denver, offering access to business leaders was beneficial for both mentors and mentees.
"Mentoring is a crucial piece of the learning puzzle and empowers students to see how what they are learning in school will apply to their careers after graduation,” says Drew Lawrence, chief of staff at FullContact and a Pioneering Summer mentor. “After working with the teams from Wanderlift and PocketChange, there is no question their careers have been jump-started by this experience."
“[This] Summer has really been a boost,” says Meredith Gee, co-founder of Wanderlift. “The mentors we have been introduced to and dialogued with have been really valuable and diverse. We’ve received everything from legal counsel to advice on best practices for scaling our platform from a tech perspective. We are currently in talks with CDOT about bringing this to municipalities across the state [that] have expressed a need for the platform.”
In July, the Wanderlift Team competed against 14 other student groups as part of the National Academy of Engineers Global Grand Challenges startup competition.
“Being a 19-year-old founder trying to do something this big is an interesting challenge,” says Reyn Aubrey, CEO and founder of PocketChange. “Running a company is always hard, but being in school makes it even trickier – we’re forced to juggle what seems like a million things. Pioneering Summer gave our team the ability to step out of the craziness of school for a summer and focus 100 percent on building our company. X-ITE took care of our basic needs which really allowed our minds to think big and freed us up to tackle major problems”
To qualify for Pioneering Summer, students had to have an established business and a series of goals to accomplish. Each week, students pitched their company to business leaders who helped them work through specific challenges.
“All of Project X-ITE’s initiatives and programs aim to build impactful partnerships with creative thinkers and doers across industries,” says Nina Sharma, Co-Director of Project X-ITE. “Pioneering Summer is the epitome of our mission to provide a cross-disciplinary platform that bridges innovation on campus and in the community.”
The students’ final “demo day” and graduation will take place Thursday, August 17 at Comcast’s Wynkoop location in downtown Denver. Graduation is open to the public. Students will give a final pitch that includes the progress they made over the summer and their plans for the future.