Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

UMD bolsters program to finance, counsel student entrepreneurs

A member of the inaugural class of Terp Startup Fellows does a workshop using his company’s technology. (Courtesy of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship).

The University of Maryland is no stranger to student entrepreneurship; it’s been offering a summer accelerator for student ventures for years, as well as academic programs in entrepreneurship.

But with its latest program designed to uplift student entrepreneurs, the Terp Startup Fellowship, the university hopes to go the extra mile to support these ventures. The year-long program, which first launched as a pilot in 2019 and expanded into a full program this year, offers five student-led businesses up to $20,000 in non-dilutive seed funding, mentorship opportunities and coworking space.

The program was born out of the Terp Startup summer accelerator, after a handful of participants expressed their desires to keep working with UMD’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship even after completing the program, said Holly DeArmond, the center’s managing director.

“There was always sort of a subset of founders and startups and that wanted more and needed more and were ready to accelerate in the following year,” she said.

Working with Bill Boyle, a UMD alum, donor, mentor in the summer accelerator, and chairman of the Dingman Center’s advisory board, DeArmond saw an opportunity for the center to extend the accelerator program into the school year for those select teams that wanted the additional time, money and resources. The program is funded through a donation from Boyle, who is an angel investor and former entrepreneur.

Metrics put in place at the time to gauge the program’s success included looking at whether the company could gain customers over the course of the year, whether they were able to communicate well with advisers and investors, and whether they had a growth plan in place at the end of the program.

With the expansion into a full program, the number of fellows grew from two or three startups to five this year. Those companies include a digital wellness platform, an inclusive athletic apparel brand, a drone company, a digital culinary platform and a fintech application, all helmed by current UMD students or recent graduates.

The digital wellness platform, called Vitalize, aims to share mindfulness tools and resources with health care workers who experience high rates of burnout. Though the product wasn’t inspired by the pandemic, which has further illuminated this issue, its founders coincidentally began working on the project about a month before COVID-19 hit the United States in March 2020.

But neither founder was a business major, and they didn’t know how to turn their idea into an actual business. That’s why they applied to the Terp Startup accelerator in the summer of 2020.

“We initially had an idea, we had interviewed some people, we had an idea for a solution,” said Veeraj Shah, a recent UMD graduate and one of Vitalize’s founders. “But the Terp Startup (program), we knew it would teach us how to be entrepreneurs … it really taught us the basic building blocks of how to build a successful venture.”

The year-long program has only been underway for Shah and his co-founder, Sanketh Andhavarapu, for a few weeks, but what Shah said he was most looking forward to about it was working with mentors who are passionate about student entrepreneurship.

“For us, its impactful to know that there are people out there … who care so much,” he said.

The full program has expanded its curriculum somewhat, adding, for example, onto how it teaches students about communicating with advisers and investors. Whereas the previous cohorts have treated Boyle, who is a mentor for the program, as a stand-in for an investor, the current cohort will be required to appoint a board of advisors as well. It also now requires students to develop an investor pitch deck.

Because the one-year program still wasn’t enough for some of the participants, the program also removed stipulations that fellows could only be in one cycle of the program and that they had to do it immediately after finishing the accelerator. To offer students more flexibility, they can now participate multiple years, and can apply even if they did the accelerator a two or three summers ago — as Shah and Andhavarapu did.

Finally, students will also be able to once again use in-person coworking space, an important element of the program, thanks to students returning to UMD for the semester after on-campus instruction was limited for 18 months due to the pandemic.

“When founders are around their peers … they have great acceleration. And so, the first semester of year one, we were still on campus and we had the two founding teams working together in a coworking space at the center,” DeArmond said. “The community they were building in helping one another, it was positive for both of those teams.”

Startups are “a long game,” she noted, and it will be another several years before the program’s leaders can look back and definitively see whether they accelerated successful startups. But she’s confident in the talent and drive of the fellows, many of whom already have impressive successes under their belts, to achieve big things, whether it be with the companies they bring to the fellowship or future endeavors.

“I think it’s a great program for students who really want to give it a try,” she said. “We’re not taking any equity with these funds, so it’s a safe place to try and fail.”