PRIME Students and Alumni | PRIME: Program in Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship

PRIME Students and Alumni

Abhinav Capoor '16
Associate at Sunsar Capital Management
My Prime:Three things that most stood out about PRIME. Professors are energetic and excited to teach and most importantly share their own industry experience with the students. The student body was from all over the world and brought many different experiences and interests, making the class discussions rich and fruitful. The practical courses encouraged us to think beyond the textbook and go out there and test our passions in a safe and encouraging environment. Overall, PRIME was an excellent program and I now have life-long friends and mentors through it.

Adam Standley '08
Process Engineer Wakonda Technologies
My Prime:PRIME gave me the time and resources to evaluate a business opportunity, develop a technology concept, and establish a network to bring a business concept to life. I most appreciated PRIME's case-study based learning approach which was balanced by application based exercises. Classes were taught by "do-ers" who have real world business experience. PRIME was instrumental in setting my early career trajectory.

Ian Thomas '14
Co-Founder & CTO at Geodex
My Prime:When I started PRIME, my past experiences led me to equate entrepreneurship with making consumer iPhone apps. I really enjoyed how PRIME differentiates itself by focusing on advanced technologies developed in academic settings. Many of these technologies have the potential to positively change lives. Through PRIME I gained a solid foundation for evaluating business opportunities and intellectual property. But more important to me, I'm now part of a fantastic cohort of supportive and like-minded classmates. As we embark on our professional careers, I know I can count on them for inspiration and advice.

Jake Jong Hwa Song '12
Venture Investment Analyst at Samsung Electronics
My Prime:At Prime I appreciated the most the opportunity to have an actual hands-on experience in business building and further and learning to think out-of-the-box. It was great hearing life experiences from actual entrepreneurs who have the experience of both success and failure. The biggest skill I learned from PRIME is to analyze and observe things in different angles, realizing that a seemingly obvious cause of a problem is not actually the real origin of the problem.

Jug Vajarodaya '15
Co-Founder & COO at Parkloco
My Prime:"I had a highly technical background from Thailand, but I was always more interested in the application of technology into business. PRIME was the best transition to the business world that also respected my technical skills. The course work, case studies and the guidance from professors had helped me open my mind to various perspectives of business around the world on a global scale. The resources I received at PRIME helped me build a strong fundamental business model that worked in the real world. Bottom line, the program helped bring Parkloco to life!"

My Story:

"Let’s use RFID sensors to display real-time parking information in an app for drivers!"

Discovery. Pivot.

"Parking data already exists and RFID sensors are hard to scale. Let’s just aggregate what’s there and use that to display the parking data."

Major discovery. Pivot.

Parking lot managers are stuck in the 20th century. They collect data, but do not optimize occupancy and ticket pricing. Enter Parkloco.

Jug and Ronak began their entrepreneurial careers when they met in PRIME. Legend has it that the idea came to them on a bus during their PRIME trip to Germany and Latvia. As Jug and Ronak recall it, “We were working on this RFID sensor technology, so we thought what if we could use it to track the occupancy of parking spaces? With that data, we could display parking availability in real-time to drivers. That’s a huge problem which nobody seems to address.”

As PRIME stresses, their first step was to understand the opportunity, and to do this they needed to speak with relevant people in their industry. Jug and Ronak needed to speak to experts in the fields of RFID and parking to find the most valuable information. After a lot of time finding connections and having a number of key talks with companies like Texas Instruments, they discovered something valuable: this is too hard to scale.

“We discovered that a company had already set up a system like the one we were thinking about in San Francisco. We learned through our conversations that this company had relatively good results from their system, but were really struggling to find a way to scale. That’s when we decided that we should pivot. That’s one great thing about PRIME, it pushes you to think about and find solutions that scale and solve huge problems. And PRIME’s focus on speaking to relevant people in order to understand an industry was really important.” By understanding the industry they saw that an existing company had great struggles scaling, and that parking managers were very reluctant to replace their existing technology, which made the sales cycle very long.

On top of these discoveries, the two learned that a lot of parking lots were already recording parking availability, but not doing anything with it. So they decided that they would use the data that existed in parking lot POS systems, feed it into an app, display parking availability in real-time to consumers, and, to top it all off, they would analyze the parking data from these POS systems and provide actionable insights to parking lot managers to help them optimize occupancy and ticket pricing.

This is the idea Jug and Ronak carried into the final PRIME presentations. After PRIME they had a decision to make. Do they find jobs to sponsor their Visas or do they take a risk and try to make their business a big success (securing their Visas by doing so)? They decided to give themselves the summer months to work on Parkloco, and if the outlook was positive, they would continue, and if not, they would move on.

Over that summer, a key thing happened: they got their first customer. They signed a deal with three parking locations associated with Brown University and began running a pilot project, taking and analyzing data from their respective POS systems. This helped them achieve their first major success: Jug and Ronak were selected for the Dreamit accelerator in Philadelphia. 12 teams were selected out of 500. Jug and Ronak were the youngest entrepreneurs in their cohort. Their peers had years of experience and impressive accolades, but they made it. Looking back, the two consider this moment one of their fondest memories.

“It was the first time someone external bet on us. That was a really great feeling,” expressed the duo.

This accelerator gave them great mentors and motivation. They made some significant progress there, finishing their pilot product at Brown University, signing on a few more major parking locations, and proving the success of the product itself. But one of the best outcomes of the Accelerator came from the advice of one impressive advisor, “Most startups can’t even do one thing successfully. And you’re proposing to provide two completely different services to very different customers.” And so, three days before the pitch day at Dreamit, Jug and Ronak let go of the consumer facing, real-time parking app and focused on the SaaS for parking lots. It was tough for them to let go of the consumer aspect to their problem, because in their minds it made the solution that they were offering complete, it was the problem that they themselves experienced and wanted to address. Ultimately they took this advice to heart and made the switch to focus on selling analytics to parking lots.

Since then, Parkloco has made great progress rolling out their product to thousands of parking lots nationwide. They raised a seed round of capital of just over $500k a year ago, and are currently in the middle of a second financing round. Big things are coming from Parkloco!

If you are interested in learning more about Parkloco and their great endeavor visit them here!

To give a little behind the scenes at Parkloco, we asked a few, more personal questions to spice up the article:

Q: What has been the scariest experience you’ve had so far on your entrepreneurial path?

A: Immigration. What if we’re successful, but couldn’t secure a Visa, and had to let go of our venture? That was the scariest thought. We wasted a lot of time worrying and dealing with it, when we should have been building a business. But Brown was a huge help, and we both figured out our immigration situation!

Q: What has been the most exciting thing that happened to you since founding Parkloco?

A: Getting accepted into Dreamit. It was a very prestigious program, and we were such underdogs, but we made it, we convinced them to bet on us. That was a huge success and very exciting for us. But also, we get excited about all the firsts: first accelerator program, first customer, first check, first investment, and so on. Those are super exciting when they happen.

Q: What was it like raising your first round of capital?

A: Actually, it’s very funny. We had been introduced to a Brown alum, Geoff Bernstein, through the legend that is Barrett Hazeltine, and we went up to Boston for a few initial conversations not pertaining to an immediate need for money, more like telling him where we were and getting his advice on what we should be accomplishing. And in something like the fourth conversation, we were asking Geoff for advice on how to secure a bank loan, and he asked how much we needed. After hearing the amount, he offered to invest. We were completely not expecting that, so that was a really cool thing to experience. It was really useful to be in communication with him early, because he saw us through our process, he knew us, our team, our idea and potential, and our ability to make progress. We think the biggest reason he invested was because of our focus on a scalable solution, and our vision for the company. The team and validation was good, but the vision and scalability of our company we think was the deciding factor. If you have a real enthusiasm and energy about the vision for your product and company, that is a very big motivator investors. It ended up being one of the best things to happen to Parkloco as Geoff has been extremely instrumental in growing and scaling our model.

Q: Lastly, do you have any advice for upcoming PRIME students or aspiring entrepreneurs in general?

A: To aspiring entrepreneurs, where there’s a will, there’s a way. We think if you have perseverance, that really goes a long way. If you truly believe in yourself and your product, then perseverance will make it successful. But you have to really believe in it. We had many sources of small validation that gave us such motivation and allowed us to really believe that we could scale and be successful. And we’re now well on our way.

"To potential PRIME students, come into the program with an open mind. One of the things that ended up being valuable for us was our openness to taking risks. That puts us in a lot of situations where we grew as entrepreneurs and as people."

Laurence Wattrus ‘13
Co-Founder & SVP Hardware at Hammerhead
My Prime:"PRIME opened my mind. The courses and case studies exposed me to a subject completely foreign to me and I was inspired and excited. I had worked on engineering teams in manufacturing companies before PRIME, and had never understood or thought about how the company as a whole made decisions, or what really was involved in those decisions. In a diverse class of differing experience it’s fascinating to see how everyone analyzes the same case. "

My Story:

Laurence, originally from Johannesburg, South Africa finished his undergraduate degree in Electro-Mechanical Engineering at the University of Cape Town and has always been a cycling enthusiast. Prior to joining PRIME, Laurence had worked as a design engineer for a few years but then intended to learn about managing innovation within companies. Prime provided this education but Laurence found other things too.  As Laurence puts it, PRIME opened his mind. The courses and case studies exposed him to a subject completely foreign to him and he was inspired and excited. He had worked on engineering teams in manufacturing companies before PRIME, but had never understood or thought about how the company as a whole made decisions, or what really was involved in those decisions. The program put entrepreneurship as a career on his radar. All this served to motivate Laurence to make a life changing decision and co-found the company Hammerhead. Hammerhead is a smart device that guides cyclists through their ride and analyzes their performance afterwards. Without his year at PRIME, Laurence says he would not have likely jumped on the startup opportunity that was presented to him.

His childhood friend Piet Morgan had hypothesized and designed a system for simple and effective bike navigation that attaches to any set of handlebars. Laurence, with his engineering design experience and newfound entrepreneurial knowledge, got to work discovering the customer, iterating the value proposition, and prototyping the product. They moved to New Jersey with a third co-founder, Raveen Bheemsingh and all stayed in what Laurence not-so-eloquently calls a “very affordable” one-bedroom apartment. After identifying the enthusiastic early-adopter customer profile, their first major success came with a successful crowdfunding campaign. From there, they were accepted into the first R/GA - Techstars IOT accelerator in 2014 where they gained from the influence, culture and network of Techstars and the incredible design and branding power of R/GA..

But all of this sounds too good to be true for the young startup Hammerhead. After finishing the R/GA - Techstars IOT program, their company came to a hurdle. Each team was faced with immigration problems as they were all from outside the US. One of our co-founder's, Raveen was not able to extend his VISA any longer and was forced to leave the US, where the team had been working as a tight unit. Hammerhead managed to turn this into a blessing by setting up an office in Chennai and then later Bangalore India. They were able to have Raveen lead a whole team in India and hire the best talent from the region.

Later, Hammerhead's head of Hardware, Robert Martinez, moved from San Francisco to Shenzhen. Hammerhead was then able to have specialized talent in these highly skill-dense regions. Both regions turned out to be great for these fields. They decided to set up offices in each of these locations, and hire the best talent to fill those offices. While perhaps most startups would have closed down with the splitting up of a young team, Hammerhead turned this into a huge advantage. The company is gearing up to launch an exciting addition to their product line. Find out more about Hammerhead here

We asked Laurence to give us a couple nuanced anecdotes from his experience. First, he explains that,

“For hardware startups you really have to thread that fine line between spending all raised funds on inventory and actually building a highly skilled team and reliable product. Many companies raise money with the intention to make products, but often they aren’t able to pull together the team necessary to design, improve, and build the product that the money was raised for.”

Fortunately, Laurence and his founders were able to sell their vision to enough talented employees to ensure that all the invested money would advance the core-value of the product. Second, Laurence brought up his experience with remote working within teams. He says that having people in these strategic locations is beneficial for one main reason, they can manage on site to instil the right “startup and risk-taking” mindset in the engineers. It’s tough to get the engineers in these locations to think like entrepreneurs. In Laurence’s experience, their career thinking is very different. They wanted stable jobs, and startup attitudes are only just now growing popular. So they established a software division in Bangalore, India and their manufacturing division in Shenzhen, China. 

After years of developing and shipping the Hammerhead One as a smart navigation device for city cyclists they focused their attention to a more ambitious product. "We knew that this market had a huge untapped potential for a product that delivered experiences and feedback better. We built the Karoo as an entirely new approach to the cycling computer." Karoo enables cyclists to build and explore new routes, train more effectively and share the ride with others. Karoo is the first standalone companion for bikes, connected to the cloud, capable of updating riders on the ride and connecting them to training communities at their level.

Visit Hammerhead.io and check out their amazing product.

Margaret Lengerich ‘13
Founder & CEO at HMSolution
My Prime:“At PRIME I learned how to start a business, to be flexible and open for changes, how to assess a technology's business potential and a structured process to innovate based on the customer’s needs. When you are building a business around an innovative technology, there are many unknowns and the path to go to market is unclear. At PRIME I learned to plan considering uncertainties and at the same time be flexible to change the plan if needed which is often the case.”

My Story:

Margaret’s story is one of grit. She had a job before PRIME, she had a promotion lined up for when she returned, but she also had a desire to solve a problem in her home country, Chile. PRIME fueled her entrepreneurial fire, and the technology she was working on solved a big problem in her home country. She saw huge potential in it where nobody else on her venture team during PRIME did. She let go of her promotion and went to work. A professor at Brown had IP surrounding the removal of Arsenic from water but didn’t have a sellable system, so Margaret built one. She tested its efficacy, and she went to scale the technology by finding the right market and partners. One motivation for pursuing this venture, Margaret said, was the push he had because there were 3 other startups that started from her class. She said it was a healthy competition between her and her classmates, who had grown very close over the course of the program.

During PRIME, Margaret was introduced to Brown University Professor Dr. Joseph Calo, who, with his research team, invented of a revolutionary way to remove Arsenic from water. His method took Arsenic levels in water to zero in the most cost effective way in the market. Arsenic was a problem in Margaret’s home country of Chile. She loved the thought of fixing a major problem and was inspired by the prospects of the solution she found with Professor Calo. She worked with her fellow PRIME team members for a year developing their first commercialization plan… it’s amazing to see how it’s changed since then!

Initially, the team was planning around a home filtration system, selling individual water filter units that homeowners would be installed under the sink. They entered the Rhode Island Business Plan Competition around this idea and became semi-finalists but didn’t win. This marked the end of PRIME, and the team went off to careers in industry, but Margaret couldn’t shake the excitement she felt from her entrepreneurial experience during that year of PRIME. She couldn’t let herself return to her old job, even considering the promotion she was offered. Margaret got to work and spent the summer and some of the money she had been recently granted learning and constructing the company’s very first functional prototype. It was hard. She had to understand fields of science that she had never studied before, but she pulled it off. She got it to work and it worked well.

After one year of hard work, participating in two accelerators and winning multiple grants, she have made lots of progress in the development of the technology and had a better understanding of the market in Chile and the US. She was ready to give the Rhode Island Business Plan Competition another chance. This time she won it! HMSolution was awarded a much-needed $65,000 in cash and services. She made connections through a few mentors from her time in PRIME, and found herself presenting HMSolution in front of Rhode Island business people and investors at a Brown sponsored innovation showcase. There, she met Eugene Yazbak. Eugene is an experienced businessman with 30 years of global experience taking advanced industrial products to market, who was impressed with Margaret's resolve and vision to bring this product to market and the business potential. After a few months struggling to gather the funds to support growth in the residential market, the two eventually pivoted the idea to selling mid-size water filter units for municipal water treatment facilities and small community developments. They were able to secure funding from financial investors, government grants and a large New England industrial OEM company with experience developing mid- to large-size water treatment equipment. They iterated their prototype until they had a reproducible, transportable, world-class water treatment unit, which can easily attach to existing filter systems.

When we asked her about her PRIME experience, Margaret responded, “PRIME affected me 100%. It taught me how to innovate.” We’re excited to see where her company goes! Keep working hard, Margaret.

 Find out more about HM Solution here

 

 

 

Matthew Doherty '10
Vice President at Morgan Stanley
My Prime:"PRIME taught me to think more entrepreneurially, thinking outside the box in any organization, large or small, is a key to success. I think this program teaches you that skill. Mostly I appreciated the focus from the faculty on the program’s success and application in the real world. PRIME subject matter was not theoretical, the goal is to start an innovative company with the tools that the program provides."

My Story:

He studied engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where his interests quickly shifted to entrepreneurship after having an idea for a mobile payments product that he and a friend came up with. He pursued this idea for some time, and realized that there was a world of knowledge out there to which he had no exposure. He had to learn more about starting companies. In keeping with his roots, he discovered PRIME as an ideal fit for him because “it married tech, entrepreneurship, engineering and business.” So he packed his bags, and crossed the street from his hometown in Cumberland, Rhode Island to Providence where he would spend an unforgettable year making global friends and pursuing his passion for entrepreneurship. 

“The best part about PRIME was the exciting anticipation for success,” says Matthew. In PRIME, he and his team (a core component of PRIME is the group venture project, where students select technologies/university patents from the lab and attempt to commercialize that technology) worked on commercializing a novel way to measure vitamin D in blood using electrochemistry. He remembers the excitement the team had going through the curriculum and the commercialization process. “The process was so real. We did customer research with potential customers and applied techniques from the classroom, like understanding barriers to entry and competitive advantages, to a real commercialization plan.” His team spent the year understanding the technology, understanding markets, and identifying the product vehicles that would address the best markets. “I was exposed to so many different fields, from finance to customer discovery and business development.”

Ultimately, PRIME opened his eyes to new realms of opportunity, to which he was previously unaware in his undergraduate studies. Even though the team decided to not move forward with the venture, Matthew keeps this idea still in his mind for a later day :) He then found his career match in finance, where he had the engineering background to excel in the technical aspects and the passion for entrepreneurship to be excited by the business aspects. After PRIME, he joined Goldman Sachs as an analyst and has worked his way up in the finance world since then. Matthew is now a Vice President at Morgan Stanley. Before PRIME, he had the hard skills; excel, math, logic, coding… But it’s the soft skills that PRIME developed in him that turned out to be a major contributor to his success in his career. 
“Being entrepreneurial was an important skill for me. Being able to think outside the box is applicable in a lot of settings, even in monster (in size) corporations. As long as they’re open to new ideas, and the best companies are, then entrepreneurship, thinking outside the box, ideation, and all the things that are taught and experienced in PRIME, are applicable in any established company. And that skill, being comfortable enough to be creative in how you think about processes and business models will always be valuable to companies, regardless of size.”

Matthew’s sentiment is highlighted in his first role at a trading desk in Goldman Sachs. Things were done in a very particular way when he started. After a couple years of experience, he started thinking about some of the things he was doing and how to make changes to improve them. He created an excel automation tool which replaced a substantial part of his work load. But it didn’t stop there and was eventually adopted by his department and became a new standard process. It was a big VLookUp machine and big data model that allowed his department to quickly get the ticker information and focus on the more profitable, revenue generating stocks. By doing what he did, he saved lots of people a lot of time. It freed people up to do better more profitable things. 
As the interviewer, I was naturally curious about whether he spun this product into a startup.
“No. The product solved a big problem, but, the market and business strategy didn’t make sense. There were only a handful of firms large enough to benefit from this product, so the market was small, and the biggest reason not to commercialize was that these firms would be large enough to develop the product in house relatively easily. The business argument wasn’t strong enough for me to devote large amounts of time to it.”

This entrepreneurial spirit is still with Matthew, like the force is with Luke. He feels that with his nearly 10 years of experience in finance, he is in the best place to innovate in this space. He knows the problems intimately, and now that he has “business experience coupled with academic experience,” he can identify the right product and make it sell.

Since we launched this article news arrived us that Matthew will be joining the class of 2019 at MIT Sloan School of Management to pursue his MBA. During this time Matthew would like to focus on Real Estate finance and FinTech Startups. 

Keep your eyes open for Matthew Doherty! 

Mauricio Rojas '11
Cloud Partnerships LATAM at Google
My Prime:I developed business skills around ideation, business planning, and finance so that I can pivot my career from a technical perspective into a business one, as we work in teams to take ideas and convert them into executable business projects. We learned a defined process to take ideas and test them against market needs and revenue potential. The program helped us understand the importance of collaboration within our teams, but most importantly with technologists and companies.

My Story:

Mauricio Rojas was born and raised in Venezuela, where he went to college and studied telecommunications and communication systems. For 5 years, he was deeply involved with math and physics, and he decided that he wanted to broaden his knowledge base and gain experience with sales and marketing. So, out of college, he spent 3 years in sales and marketing at Coca-Cola. In his words, “After 3 years at Coca-Cola, I looked back at all the time I spent studying math and physics, and felt slightly unsatisfied with my position in Coke, as I was not applying the knowledge that I had spent 5 years studying in undergrad.” So, Mauricio spent some time searching for ways to get back to the technical side of life, and found his next opportunity in PRIME. He wanted a path that let him utilize both his areas of experience, technical and sales and he saw PRIME as a great fit for him. He saw PRIME as a business program primarily focused on educating students with technical backgrounds and made the decision to move to the US and spend one year on the campus of Brown University studying the process by which technology is commercialized.

 

Upon reflection, Mauricio remembers the project as his most outstanding experience in PRIME. He worked on a technology developed by a Brown Professor in the chemical engineering department. This technology was a chemical filtration system by which a solution is run through a specially designed material intended to filter certain chemicals from the solution. The team spent the first semester studying the technology and the market for chemical filters. By the end of semester one, the team had identified what they believed to be the most appropriate market for the technology. They decided that they would address the nutritional supplements market, using their technology to filter omega3 from fatty acids in the manufacturing process of supplements. Mauricio became heavily involved in this project, and spent the winter and second semester working hard to develop a commercialization plan. By the end of the second semester, the team wanted to find jobs in industry, so they went their separate ways. Mauricio, intending to get back involved with his technical background while still applying his business experience, found a technical sales position at Ericsson Inc, an international telecom infrastructure provider. He spent three years in this role before he was approached by Google to be involved in business development, where he currently works today. His role involves recruiting and developing companies that sell google products in Latin America. As such, he now finds himself applying PRIME concepts on a daily basis.

 

When asked what were the most important things that he gained in PRIME, Mauricio pointed to three things. First, he can’t stress how important it was for him to learn and practice cold calling in PRIME. Before then, it made him uncomfortable and he thought it was useless. Now, he finds that the ability to cold call and have productive conversations is essential to his daily work, and PRIME helped him overcome his hesitations and practice how to be most effective with his calls. Second, he found that his experience with developing a professional business plan was extremely important. On the surface, it appears that having a mission, vision, and financial projections were just used to dress-up companies, and not essential. But after going through PRIME and recruiting companies for Google, he has come to understand the business plans importance, and he applies that experience every day when evaluating companies. Third, he found that studying cashflow was invaluable. It is extremely important in his current work in assessing the viability of businesses.

 

His motivation before joining PRIME was to get back into applying his technical experience. His goal was to join a tech company after graduation, and ultimately he landed in one. When asked what was different about his experience in PRIME compared to his undergraduate experience, Mauricio said, “There was a lot more reading! The cases that are studied in class are a great compliment to the practical experience gained in the project portion of the program. So I spent a lot of time reading and synthesizing everything.” Looking back, Mauricio regrets two things. First, he felt that he did not leverage the network that Brown provided him. He says that he could have done a lot more and used more Brown resources to meet people and find the best career for him right out of PRIME. Interestingly, Mauricio says that it took him so long to understand the importance of a network because in his home country, networking was much less common, compared to what happens in the US. But he managed to navigate his way to a great position anyway. Second, Mauricio felt that he let himself indulge a little too much in “experiencing the US.” He says that being new to the city and culture took away some of his focus that he should have been applying to the program and his project. On the other hand, he had an unforgettable experience allowing his focus to shift slightly away from PRIME, so perhaps it was just as valuable. “It certainly is a balance when studying so far away from home, focusing on school and enjoying the new environment,” says Mauricio.

 

Rachel Decker '11
Tech Support at HubSpot
My Prime:“Without PRIME, I wouldn't have been able to break into the Boston tech scene and start my career. As a UX Researcher for the past 5 years, I look back on my PRIME experience and realize that so much of it is applicable to what I do today. Talking with customers, building products, understanding changing markets, and finding product/market fit are all things I do each day in my job. I got my first exposure to all of those things at PRIME.”


“I don’t want to do astrophysics, that’s all I know.”

It’s a common occurrence. You grow up dreaming about a career, you devote your time in college to the study of this field and when time comes to move from academics to practice, you realize the work isn’t what you had expected.

This was Rachel. Since a child she dreamt of the stars and wanted to be an astrophysicist. But Rachel was longing for a more social environment. Late into a night of collecting data, Rachel found herself alone in the observatory at Ohio Wesleyan University, and it dawned on her that she couldn’t do this for a living. She needed more human interaction.

Fast forward 7 years, and Rachel made a 180 degree career shift. After studying in PRIME, she got into customer experience research with HubSpot and is now the Senior UX Researcher at ezCater, a technology company that makes business catering easy. Rachel has an amazing story which led her to this role. She’s interacting with humans on a daily basis and making key decisions on product strategy based on hard customer data.

How does one shift from astrophysics to UX research? It starts with Rachel’s entrepreneurial passion. She didn’t know exactly what she wanted, but starting a company was always a goal of hers. After graduating from college, she spent a year working and figuring out her plan. It was then that PRIME came up on her radar, and was instantly a match for her. It catered to her technical side and her entrepreneurial personality. Five months later Rachel was on college hill forming lifelong bonds with friends from all over the globe.

During PRIME, Rachel worked on a project dealing with high performance liquid chromatography, technology that separates components in a mixture. Though she did not find a passion for the technology and business potential, she discovered one aspect of entrepreneurship which struck a chord: customer research. She made 50+ cold calls to research the market as part of her project diligence, and realized that there was so much knowledge to be gained for a business by doing this. This is what she could do with her career. It was social and had a huge impact on the results of a business.

Fast forward a year, and she landed her first stint at HubSpot. She started in technical sales, but quickly moved over to tech support. This is where she really started learning about the product and how to listen to customers. Because she started hearing the same problems about the product over and over again, she decided to do something about it. The newly formed UX team at HubSpot was slated to tackle these issues through research and design. Rachel made it a point to connect with that team and began shadowing the UX Researcher. She learned about the process that large startups (HubSpot was 300+ employees at the time) go through to include customer research in their product. When the woman whom she was shadowing moved to another position, Rachel was quick to throw her name in the hat to take her place. She was a natural fit. She had great confidence when applying that she could be effective in this role. She had diligently practiced speaking to customers and understanding real needs in both PRIME and her role in Tech Support, and HubSpot noticed. She got the job, and began her exciting career in UX research.

When asked about how PRIME has affected her, Rachel had this to say: “Exposure, starting point, and real world.” She values that PRIME gave her insight into a world previously so foreign to her. PRIME gave her the awareness and confidence to get involved in customer research. She recalls contemplating whether or not to apply to the customer research job at HubSpot, saying “Oh yeah, I’ve talked to lots of people about products and problems, I can do this.” She did and has done very well.

She still wants to start a business, that passion hasn’t left. Rachel is the type of person who works until she feels she’s not learning, and her time in the field of UX research is still exciting and growing. Every day she learns. It looks like her future venture will have to wait!

Ronak Masand '15
Co-founder & CEO at Parkloco
My Prime:“The PRIME final project gave us the perfect environment to validate our business idea and prepared us to launch our venture after graduation. Additionally, the PRIME trip was a fantastic learning curve and it showed how businesses need to be tailored to fit their respective markets. PRIME trained me to be comfortable dealing with a lot of unknown variables, which led me to co-found Parkloco."

My Story:

"Let’s use RFID sensors to display real-time parking information in an app for drivers!"

Discovery. Pivot. 

"Parking data already exists and RFID sensors are hard to scale. Let’s just aggregate what’s there and use that to display the parking data."

Major discovery. Pivot. 

Parking lot managers are stuck in the 20th century. They collect data, but do not optimize occupancy and ticket pricing. Enter Parkloco.

Jug and Ronak began their entrepreneurial careers when they met in PRIME. Legend has it that the idea came to them on a bus during their PRIME trip to Germany and Latvia. As Jug and Ronak recall it, “We were working on this RFID sensor technology, so we thought what if we could use it to track the occupancy of parking spaces? With that data, we could display parking availability in real-time to drivers. That’s a huge problem which nobody seems to address.”

As PRIME stresses, their first step was to understand the opportunity, and to do this they needed to speak with relevant people in their industry. Jug and Ronak needed to speak to experts in the fields of RFID and parking to find the most valuable information. After a lot of time finding connections and having a number of key talks with companies like Texas Instruments, they discovered something valuable: this is too hard to scale. 

“We discovered that a company had already set up a system like the one we were thinking about in San Francisco. We learned through our conversations that this company had relatively good results from their system, but were really struggling to find a way to scale. That’s when we decided that we should pivot. That’s one great thing about PRIME, it pushes you to think about and find solutions that scale and solve huge problems. And PRIME’s focus on speaking to relevant people in order to understand an industry was really important.” By understanding the industry they saw that an existing company had great struggles scaling, and that parking managers were very reluctant to replace their existing technology, which made the sales cycle very long. 

On top of these discoveries, the two learned that a lot of parking lots were already recording parking availability, but not doing anything with it. So they decided that they would use the data that existed in parking lot POS systems, feed it into an app, display parking availability in real-time to consumers, and, to top it all off, they would analyze the parking data from these POS systems and provide actionable insights to parking lot managers to help them optimize occupancy and ticket pricing. 

This is the idea Jug and Ronak carried into the final PRIME presentations. After PRIME they had a decision to make. Do they find jobs to sponsor their Visas or do they take a risk and try to make their business a big success (securing their Visas by doing so)? They decided to give themselves the summer months to work on Parkloco, and if the outlook was positive, they would continue, and if not, they would move on. 

Over that summer, a key thing happened: they got their first customer. They signed a deal with three parking locations associated with Brown University and began running a pilot project, taking and analyzing data from their respective POS systems. This helped them achieve their first major success: Jug and Ronak were selected for the Dreamit accelerator in Philadelphia. 12 teams were selected out of 500. Jug and Ronak were the youngest entrepreneurs in their cohort. Their peers had years of experience and impressive accolades, but they made it. Looking back, the two consider this moment one of their fondest memories. 

“It was the first time someone external bet on us. That was a really great feeling,” expressed the duo. 

This accelerator gave them great mentors and motivation. They made some significant progress there, finishing their pilot product at Brown University, signing on a few more major parking locations, and proving the success of the product itself. But one of the best outcomes of the Accelerator came from the advice of one impressive advisor, “Most startups can’t even do one thing successfully. And you’re proposing to provide two completely different services to very different customers.” And so, three days before the pitch day at Dreamit, Jug and Ronak let go of the consumer facing, real-time parking app and focused on the SaaS for parking lots. It was tough for them to let go of the consumer aspect to their problem, because in their minds it made the solution that they were offering complete, it was the problem that they themselves experienced and wanted to address. Ultimately they took this advice to heart and made the switch to focus on selling analytics to parking lots.

Since then, Parkloco has made great progress rolling out their product to thousands of parking lots nationwide. They raised a seed round of capital of just over $500k a year ago, and are currently in the middle of a second financing round. Big things are coming from Parkloco!

If you are interested in learning more about Parkloco and their great endeavor visit them here!

To give a little behind the scenes at Parkloco, we asked a few, more personal questions to spice up the article: 

Q: What has been the scariest experience you’ve had so far on your entrepreneurial path?

A: Immigration. What if we’re successful, but couldn’t secure a Visa, and had to let go of our venture? That was the scariest thought. We wasted a lot of time worrying and dealing with it, when we should have been building a business. But Brown was a huge help, and we both figured out our immigration situation! 

Q: What has been the most exciting thing that happened to you since founding Parkloco?

A: Getting accepted into Dreamit. It was a very prestigious program, and we were such underdogs, but we made it, we convinced them to bet on us. That was a huge success and very exciting for us. But also, we get excited about all the firsts: first accelerator program, first customer, first check, first investment, and so on. Those are super exciting when they happen. 

Q: What was it like raising your first round of capital?

A: Actually, it’s very funny. We had been introduced to a Brown alum, Geoff Bernstein, through the legend that is Barrett Hazeltine, and we went up to Boston for a few initial conversations not pertaining to an immediate need for money, more like telling him where we were and getting his advice on what we should be accomplishing. And in something like the fourth conversation, we were asking Geoff for advice on how to secure a bank loan, and he asked how much we needed. After hearing the amount, he offered to invest. We were completely not expecting that, so that was a really cool thing to experience. It was really useful to be in communication with him early, because he saw us through our process, he knew us, our team, our idea and potential, and our ability to make progress. We think the biggest reason he invested was because of our focus on a scalable solution, and our vision for the company. The team and validation was good, but the vision and scalability of our company we think was the deciding factor. If you have a real enthusiasm and energy about the vision for your product and company, that is a very big motivator investors. It ended up being one of the best things to happen to Parkloco as Geoff has been extremely instrumental in growing and scaling our model.

Q: Lastly, do you have any advice for upcoming PRIME students or aspiring entrepreneurs in general?

A: To aspiring entrepreneurs, where there’s a will, there’s a way. We think if you have perseverance, that really goes a long way. If you truly believe in yourself and your product, then perseverance will make it successful. But you have to really believe in it. We had many sources of small validation that gave us such motivation and allowed us to really believe that we could scale and be successful. And we’re now well on our way. 

"To potential PRIME students, come into the program with an open mind. One of the things that ended up being valuable for us was our openness to taking risks. That puts us in a lot of situations where we grew as entrepreneurs and as people."

Sarah Huebscher '11
Engineer at AVL
My Prime:My education at PRIME provided me with the foundation I needed to propel my engineering career and start my own business. The management and business fundamental skills I learned have proved invaluable throughout my career, specifically when it came to business communication, ideation, business plan development and forecasting. I know that I will continue to use these skills throughout the rest of my career, regardless of where it may go.

Hello, Reader. Are you an engineer by training and an entrepreneur by heart? If so, I think you will relate to Sarah Huebscher. Sarah came to Brown University as an undergraduate student in 2007. She studied mechanical engineering and did a couple of summer internships with a large multi-national engineering company during her undergraduate years to prepare for a career. But after her last summer, she had a longing to learn more about entrepreneurship and business.

“I was interested in entrepreneurship and the intersection of engineering and business. PRIME was a way for me to bridge the gap between how engineering and business interact,” Sarah explained.

Sarah was admitted and joined the PRIME class of 2011. She viewed PRIME as an opportunity for her to learn entrepreneurial skills while continuing to develop her engineering and problem solving skills. In PRIME, she made friends from all over the world while learning in a hands-on environment about entrepreneurship and management. “Two things that I was missing from my engineering education and internships were management and leadership skills. I really improved these soft skills at PRIME, like communication and presentation. I was forced to get out of my comfort zone through the public presentations we did, and through having to communicate with industry experts and potential customers over the phone and in writing for my PRIME venture.”

Upon graduating, Sarah went to work for the company with whom she interned as an undergraduate student, again as a design engineer, but this time around she had an eye for the business side of the company. Sarah talks about her new understanding of the business decisions behind engineering, “I remember one company decision that really flustered and upset my a lot of my engineering colleagues, ‘why would they stop the project after 2 years when everyone invested all this time in it?!’ I remember thinking back to what I studied about sunk costs in PRIME and having a solid understanding of management's decision.” Sarah quickly moved through the company into a management position within 3 years. And once again, the entrepreneurial bug bit her.

In 2014, Sarah left her job and with a classmate from Brown founded CuriousBee. Their idea was to create a marketplace for in-person classes. Sarah considers herself a lifelong learner. She consistently looks for learning opportunities in her community. CuriousBee was born when Sarah was looking for a cooking class in her area. There were plenty of online learning opportunities, but she had a very difficult time finding where she could go in her town to take an in-person class. Online learning was (still is) a booming market, but one major problem is follow through (i.e. really high dropout rates). Learning in person was way more effective. So, they set up a small ecosystem of in-person classes in Philadelphia, and opened up their marketplace to test their concept. They were accepted into an incubator, and grew to include 15 schools offering extracurricular learning opportunities in Philadelphia. After a year and a half and a lot of product tweaking, they discovered that acquisition costs were too high to sustain their business model.

“We made lots of mistakes, but we learned a ton and found lots of stuff we would do differently. CuriousBee was a really good opportunity to learn. PRIME gave me understanding of the process to discover a successful business, while CuriousBee game me the understanding of the nuts and bolts of what goes into starting and running a business. I will eventually start another company.”

In case you were worrying about what happened to Sarah, don’t. She quickly found a new position at a major engineering consulting firm, where she currently works and enjoys spending time on diverse and interesting engineering projects. We are excited to see what she does next!

Yin Fan ’10
Executive Director at PingAn Good Doctor
My Prime:"The time spent with my classmates and the way of thinking that the Professors instilled in me were definitely the most important takeaways from the program. The knowledge, experience and relationships generated in the program play an important role in my work and investment philosophy, even to this today. The understanding of the relationship between technology and market needs and the importance of systematical analysis of the business have both been helpful throughout my career. Most importantly, to LISTEN and be able to ASK the RIGHT questions are lessons that have stuck with me in my professional life and have helped me succeed in my field."

My Story:

Yin is the executive director of a 3-year-old, $5B health care company located in the heart of Shenzhen, China. He is in charge of managing the company’s strategy, the investments of their $1B Private Equity fund, and of raising their next round of capital. “It’s not about hard skills in this world. In one year, anyone can be a master with every tool and technique. What set me apart was one thing: the ability to ask good questions. That’s how you you get the opportunity to make big investments.”

He was an electronics engineer by education and trade. His first exposure to entrepreneurship came as an undergraduate at his university in China, where he had been an engineer building a hematology analyzer, which won a major Chinese national entrepreneurship award.

“I had spent a semester in the US as an undergrad, but was unsatisfied with my experience, so I wanted to go back, make adjustments, and try the US again. I looked into engineering masters programs at all the great US universities, but I found my lab work to be boring, and wanted a different career opportunity.  PRIME was the one degree that got me excited as I scoured US masters programs. Although I focused on engineering, the hematology project exposed me to entrepreneurship. I found PRIME to be a perfect fit. I had a very technical background and I was interested in starting companies. So I applied and months later boarded a plane to the US.”

In PRIME, Yin worked on a medical device project, furthering his connection to the healthcare industry, where he later found his focus as an investor. Yin recalls one class in particular that gave him a professional foundation upon which he built his career.

“The globalization course in PRIME is something that I will never forget. This is the class where I first discovered the secret to investing in companies: Ask the best questions. It’s all about what you think of a company. Being in PRIME helped me shape my perspective in an intuitive way.”

Normally you would need to pay good money for this advice, but Yin gives his investment philosophy (a very successful philosophy) here to you for free:

“Investors want the best deals. And for the best deals, its investors competing for the entrepreneurs, not the other way around. For a good deal, each investor represents a group and the entrepreneur is picking which investors to work with out of twenty people. Besides all the hard criteria, like company history, fund size, and so on, the personal relationship is very important, weather company thinks you are professional and whether you understand their business. If you’re uber, you don’t want shareholders who have no clue about your business, trying to influence decisions in all the wrong directions. So the time that you as an investor get with a company is important to demonstrate that you understand the industry and prove and testify that you are thinking the same way as the company, especially before you have a major track record. And they way you do that is by asking the best questions. But before you can ask the best questions, you need to be able to listen, to really understand what the company is saying. People have different interpretations of the same paragraph, but if you really master the skill of listening, you can do better than the others, and that prepares you to ask the questions. And getting the right questions takes a lot of hard work before the talk, too. Imagine five investors are in one room asking questions, four of those five will be stupid and ask bad questions. In this world, you can beat the others by paying attention to what the entrepreneur is saying, by understanding the industry, and by asking the correct questions to understand how the business is working, rather than asking the basic questions like what is the market size and competition. Everyone can ask those, there is no difference between you and the others. When I am going to meet a great entrepreneur, I just think back to PRIME and the globalization course.”

Yin recalls in his globalization course that they were required to prepare at minimum 2 questions for each presenter that came into the class. The professor would certify each question before the class, and he was tough. In one example, Yin had researched and prepared 25 questions for the day’s presenter, and only two were deemed valid questions by the professor. This honed his skill in the art of questioning, distinguishing him in his field, and guiding his investment philosophy and opportunities.

Yin began his career in private equity different than most. He didn’t come to his interviews after PRIME with an arsenal of financial modeling tricks (other than a solid understanding of business financials), nor did he come with experience in any sort of investment banking. He began his career with something more valuable. The ability to ask the right questions.

So how do you ask the right question? Yin has three rules: One, the question cannot be googled. Two, it can’t be too broad, and three, the question must reflect that you did research and that you understand the industry. Along with learning to listen, these three he practiced and honed throughout PRIME, and these three he still remembers today before meeting every potential investment. When Yin first started his investing career in venture capital, this skill distinguished him. At present, this skill guides him.

To conclude, we asked a few, more personal questions for your enjoyment:

Q: What was the highlight of prime?

A: 3 years out of PRIME I was tagged in a Facebook post from one of my classmates reminiscing on our experience over in Finland, and it was amazing to think that people remembered me after I was gone. Our class had a very close bond. Our rule in PRIME was “work hard play hard.”

Q: When did the PE/VC career prospect pop up on your radar?

A: In PRIME. Two things happened. First, presenters would come into class who were venture capitalists or who were in PE, and their stories fascinated me. Second, while working on the venture project in PRIME, I thought the other side of the table (the investor in this case) had a much easier job. I’m not so sure I was thinking clearly then :)

Q: What are you planning to do with your career, looking to the future?

A: I plan to take my current company public in a couple years, then start my own PE firm. Once you take a company public, you make public company friends, big shareholders, and that is the seed for building a PE fund.

Q: What advice would you give to incoming prime students?

A: Engage more! Not only in terms of engaging with classmates, but also with professors and the industries in which your PRIME projects fall. You need to talk to people, no matter how uncomfortable or lazy you feel. Talk in class, talk in phone interviews with companies, talk with professors outside of class. That’s how you will be able to practice the art of listening and asking good questions.