Pre-Accelerator Primer: A Q&A with Lacy Spott

VCU Campus

In the world of VCU entrepreneurship, one of the most exciting things happening is the Pre-Accelerator Program. To take a closer look at the initiative, we caught up with Lacy Spott, of VCU Innovation Gateway. Here’s what she had to say.

Who is involved in running the Pre-Accelerator Program?

It’s probably important to start out by saying that our pre-accelerator program is not led by faculty, but by founders in our own community. For each cohort, VCU works to identify entrepreneurs that are current founders who have successfully raised capital and have gone through a notable acceleration program themselves. For example, one of the leaders for this summer’s cohort is Chris Stewart, co-founder of Tenant Turner. Chris has raised capital and has been through both Lighthouse Labs and Y Combinator – two of the country’s top accelerators.

Do you Partner with Lighthouse Labs?

We do! Lighthouse Labs was involved with designing the program. VCU has worked closely with Lighthouse for years and the partnership was intuitive. We’ve had graduates of VCU’s Pre-Accelerator get accepted into the Lighthouse Lab program, so I would actually consider this as a feeder program.

What exactly is “pre-acceleration”?

Accelerators, as it pertains to start-ups, are typically intense 3-4 month programs that provide start-up companies with mentorship, educational components and networking opportunities in order to quickly advance the growth of the businesses. Our program is coined a “pre-accelerator” since it focuses on very early stage companies run by students, and doesn’t require a full-time commitment in order for participation.

Tell us how the program works.

Student teams apply for the program and, if selected, they are paid $5,000 and required to participate in the 12-week program. VCU takes no equity in these companies. Each week, students attend a 3-hour session that can include curriculum delivery, guest speakers or individual mentorship sessions. We deliver a curriculum following a “Lean Launch” approach; this method emphasizes customer discovery and the creation and testing of a minimal viable product through an iterative process. Regional mentors attend the sessions biweekly, and are experienced entrepreneurs that give individual teams specific advice. Guest speakers are invited to deliver content applying to entrepreneurship and insight into different areas of business development. Outside the weekly sessions, students are required to spend a minimum of 20 hours focused on building their business. The program ends with a “Demo Day” where each company will pitch their idea to a group of local investors and entrepreneurs.

What is the goal of the Pre-Accelerator Program?

Success for us focuses on developing students that have first-hand, real-world entrepreneurial experience. While this program should be educational, its focus is NOT intended to be project-based. Our goal is to identify and support those select students with both entrepreneurial aspirations and a promising idea or company that they plan to pursue. With that as the primary goal, the teams that do not produce successful businesses will still have learned and gained an invaluable experience through the program. They can use the skills and guidelines honed throughout the pre-accelerator and apply them to any business, current or future, that they create.

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What are the businesses that were created, and how are they doing?

We’ve had a total of 16 teams participate in two pre-accelerator cohorts. The businesses that went through our first pre-accelerator last summer varied from local, organic herbal teas to large-scale healthcare research services. The teams from the spring cohort include a lifestyle clothing brand, a non-profit meal basket delivery business, and a used surfboard selling platform. We keep in touch with all our companies, and 14 are still actively moving forward.

Would you say it has been a success? Why?

Yes, definitely a success. Out of the 16 teams, 14 companies have been formed and 10 are already generating revenue. The teams have collectively generated or attracted over $1,000,000 and created 29 full and part time jobs. This is in just one year – it’s incredible! Two of our companies have also gone on to be accepted into Lighthouse Labs, Richmond’s regional accelerator. Our third cohort started this May, so stay tuned for more success stories.

What are the plans for the future of the program?

We are always iterating and trying to improve the program, so future programs may look different. As we grow the program we’ll be looking at the possibility of developing verticals, or specialized pre-accelerator programs. For example, one that focuses on product companies, one that focuses on social endeavors or possibly the health sciences. We just need to work on building momentum and understanding what’s out there first. We’re also really focused on developing feeder programs, and programs that support students after pre-acceleration. Next semester we’re launching a new program that provides small start-up grants to selected students after the pre-acceleration program. That idea was actually suggested by a few of those regional entrepreneurs we use as mentors during the program. We’re very excited about testing that idea next year!

How does this fit in with other things going on around VCU?

The VCU Pre-accelerator program is a great example of why VCU is truly becoming a Venture Creation University. The program provides a very important resource that is accessible to all of VCU’s entrepreneurial students, not just students within one specific school. Schools of Business, Humanities and Sciences, Arts, Engineering and more – they all leverage this central pre-accelerator program for their students.

How can people find out more?

They can visit our website, or email me. We’re always looking for mentors from the community and students with great ideas.