Three Vermont College-Born Startups to Watch (VCET BostInno Feature)
By Ross Cristantiello
This is the fourth story in our “Inno on the Road: Burlington” series, which is running several stories on Burlington (and Vermont) startups the week of August 13, 2018.
Vermont is home to many startups created by students, a result of the effort put forth by the state’s colleges to empower innovation. The University of Vermont, Middlebury College, Norwich University and Champlain College all offer classes in entrepreneurship designed to help students make their ideas a reality; these classes connect students with leaders in the field, help them develop business plans and teach them how to pitch to potential investors successfully.
In addition, the support network for entrepreneurial students in Vermont is growing. The statewide LaunchVT accelerator program now has a separate competition specifically for college students. Places like the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies offer co-working spaces and support networks. Business coaching is available through the Vermont Small Business Development Center and other economic development corporations around the Green Mountain state.
As a center for innovation, Vermont is on the rise. Corine Farewell, Director of UVM Innovations, has seen this growth firsthand.
“I moved to Vermont myself about six years ago, and even in that short period of time the enthusiasm and the energy around innovation and entrepreneurship, that ‘we can do it spirit’ has grown exponentially,” she said. “Vermont is a really good place to start a company.”
“VERMONT IS A REALLY GOOD PLACE TO START A COMPANY.”
This growth is due in large part to the state’s size and relatively small, well-connected entrepreneurial community. Not only does this close-knit community help students develop their businesses, it’s creating an environment that encourages young people to stay in Vermont after school.
“What’s really exciting is having that small scale and a community that is interested in fostering startups. It’s been powerful to watch a young community develop,” said Heather Neuwirth, Programs Director at Middlebury’s Center for Creativity, Innovation, and Social Entrepreneurship. “We have students from Middlebury, Champlain, UVM, Norwich, all these different schools that are thinking more seriously about staying in Vermont after college because they’re seeing that connectivity and support network while they’re in school.”
We’ve rounded up three Vermont-born startups founded by students to keep an eye on:
Growing up as a ski racer in Vermont, Overeasy co-founder Eva Shaw spent long hours in brutal conditions. She grew frustrated with how cold-weather gear lacked a sense of fashion, and was mostly marketed towards men. In a gap year before enrolling at Middlebury, Shaw developed the idea for Overeasy’s signature product: a warm, secure hood designed to simultaneously fit over a ski helmet and protect the rider’s face from snow and winds. The company initially took 75 preorders and used that money, as well as some personal savings, to buy necessary materials and make the first Overeasy hoods, which currently come in a variety of patterns in colors.
Now a junior, Shaw and co-founder Megan Collins won Middlebury’s MiddChallenge, which awarded them $3,000 for product development and research this summer, Shaw said. Also essential to the company’s early success was the Middlebury Entrepreneurs class Shaw took last winter. The class helped them build a website, handle thousands of orders and develop their public speaking skills.
“Oh my gosh, it was insane. We went from zero to one hundred so fast with the guidance from [the class.] It really got us rolling,” Shaw said.
When exploring the great outdoors, answering nature’s call is easy for men. Women, however, tend to have a more difficult time relieving themselves without a bathroom. When working as a guide on the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska, SheFly co-founder Georgia Grace Edwards experienced this problem firsthand. Therefore, Edwards teamed up with Bianca Gonzalez to create outdoor pants with a specialized fly that allows woman take bathroom breaks easily while outside.
In January 2018, Edwards also enrolled in the Middlebury Entrepreneurs class and turned SheFly into a reality. The skills this class taught Edwards and Gonzalez helped them secure first place in a local pitch competition and grow their company. The SheFly team is currently in the research and development phase, creating prototypes of long underwear, hiking pants, and snow pants with the company’s specialized fly.
In 1824, Louis Braille created a tactile system of reading and writing for blind and visually impaired people. Although his creation has become the standard today, the community still does not have a widespread, easily accessible way to draw and erase images. Enter E.A.S.Y., a company created by UVM alumni Josh Coffee and professors Mike Coleman and Mike Rosen.
The challenge to create a system that would allow for “editing, saving, communicating and replicating free-hand tactile images” was initially presented to a mechanical engineering capstone course in 2008 by Rosen. From 2008 to 2011, Coleman and Rosen worked with a series of students to develop what would become the inTACT sketchpad and eraser. These allow users to draw and erase images made with raised lines. After this development period, Coffee teamed up with Coleman and Rosen to officially launch E.A.S.Y.
“E.A.S.Y. is the poster child for UVM students creating a lot of value by working with faculty members. They’re a really good example of a startup that has a lot of student involvement,” Farewell said.
With continued support from The National Federation of the Blind, as well as a loan from UVM Ventures and a grant from the National Institutes of Health, E.A.S.Y. is well on its way towards giving the blind and visually impaired people across the country a way to create drawings of their own.