Date March 1, 2020
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At Brown, entrepreneurship is more than a mindset

Undergraduates are creating successful new products and companies as the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship acts as incubator.


Formally Website

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Growing up in Austria, Class of 2018 alumna Amélie-Sophie Vavrovsky witnessed firsthand the parallel rise of immigration and xenophobia across Europe. To counter the hatred, she began volunteering with refugees while learning all she could about immigration and refugee policies. 

Pursuing those efforts at Brown, she was surprised to learn that in the United States, immigration forms themselves can constitute a barrier to asylum, as they are difficult to understand and available only in English. What’s more, applicants are not provided lawyers — despite a 1951 United Nations Convention protecting a person’s right to seek asylum. “That struck me as a gross human rights violation,” Vavrovsky said. 

Armed with an idea that would tackle the situation, the international relations concentrator signed up for the annual 24-hour software-design marathon Hack@Brown. By the end of that weekend in 2018, she and her team of four had produced the prototype for Formally, a software program with an intuitive interface that translates legalese into simple English and other languages. It guides users through immigration forms and fills them out as they go.

Warshay Class
Danny Warshay, right, director of the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, teaches a course on “The Entrepreneurial Process: Innovation in Practice.”

This drive to solve a “consequential problem” typifies many would-be entrepreneurs at Brown, says Danny Warshay, director of the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and Class of 1987 alumnus. Established in 2016 with a $25 million gift from Class of 1977 alumnus Jonathan M. Nelson, the center has in short order become a portal to all things entrepreneurial. While the entrepreneurial inclination is hardly new to Brown, including with the iconic ENGN9 class taught for decades by Professor Barrett Hazeltine, the center positions Brown to satisfy the growing appetite among students to create what Warshay called “solutions with impact.” 

Housed in a new, specially designed 10,000-square-foot building in the heart of campus, the center supports scholarly research while offering foundational courses, mentoring, grants, student-run groups, and a nonstop schedule of workshops and lectures; from fall 2016 to fall 2019, 750 students were enrolled in the center’s selective programs, and events and office hours accounted for 5,000 visits to the center. In addition, the center partners with BrownConnect (which links students with alumni) to offer internships in Israel, Germany, Sweden and elsewhere. 

“We’re not just motivating students to learn about entrepreneurship,” Warshay said. “We’re empowering them to do it.”

The results are showing, as companies started by Brown undergraduates are dominating accelerator competitions that give credibility and needed funds — such as in the 2019 MassChallenge Awards, where two of the three top Rhode Island awards went to start-ups closely connected to Brown and the Nelson Center.

To help grow Formally into a full-fledged venture, in 2018 Vavrovsky applied to the center’s Breakthrough Lab, an intensive summer accelerator program that supports students developing high-impact ventures. During B-Lab, as the program is known, she and her collaborators received a stipend of $4,000 each, worked alongside other founders and were mentored by successful alumni entrepreneurs. In March 2019, the Formally team won first place and $25,000 in the center’s Brown Venture Prize, a pitch competition designed to take advanced ventures to the next level and funded by two Brown alumni who are co-founders of Casper mattress company, Neil Parikh and Luke Sherwin, Class of 2011 and 2012, respectively. 

What's your problem?

Before applying to B-Lab, Vavrosky had taken Warshay’s course, “The Entrepreneurial Process.” Rejecting terms like “entrepreneurial mindset” or “entrepreneurial spirit,” Warshay emphasized that entrepreneurship at Brown has all the rigor of any other academic discipline. “It is a structured process you can teach, learn, master and apply,” he said. 

That process consists of three steps: identify an unmet need, devise a solution and develop a scalable, sustainable model. Step one requires inquiry and observation — what Warshay referred to as “bottom-up research.” Class of 1985 alumnus Brian Demers, who helps transform research into successful ventures as the director of business development in the Office of Industry Engagement and Commercial Venturing, agreed. “As Danny says, ‘An entrepreneur is first and foremost an anthropologist,’" he said. "You want to go in and … understand what people are doing on a daily basis, how they’re addressing a problem — as opposed to going in with an answer and then asking them what they think about it.” 

Class of 2019 alumna Saron Mechale always knew she wanted to have an impact in her native Ethiopia, a country “often perceived by the West as a place of poverty or lack of development.” She wanted to change the narrative, but she didn’t know how. In 2015, after her sophomore year, the social analysis and research concentrator took time off to spend two years back home, where she began learning about her country’s agricultural industry — specifically, about the growing demand for the Ethiopian staple and global superfood, teff, that Ethiopian farmers have been cultivating for thousands of years.

When she returned to Brown and enrolled in Warshay’s course, Mechale realized she had already done the bottom-up research he prescribes. That research — the two years she spent getting to know the Ethiopian agricultural scene — yielded the idea for goTeff, a company that would market teff-based food products online then reinvest the profits with the farmers who supply it. Mechale’s venture would thus accomplish two goals: empowering Ethiopian farmers by connecting them to international markets and telling the world “an authentic and contemporary story” about Ethiopia. 

“ The research leads you to the problem ... and you try to find the solution. ”

Saron Mechale Founder of goTeff and Class of 2019 alumna

The idea quickly gained traction. Mechale received two venture-support grants from the Nelson Center; enrolled in Lean Launchpad, Brown’s Wintersession course on building start-ups; participated in the 2018 B-Lab; and, in March 2019, won second place and $15,000 in the Brown Venture Prize competition.

That same year, goTeff was a finalist for the Hult Prize, an international competition for student entrepreneurs. After more than 10 months of product development and testing, the firm officially launched online in September 2019, and a few weeks later was named one of the top three prizewinning start-ups in the Rhode Island program of MassChallenge, a global network of start-up accelerators. Another of the top three companies, Intus Care, is also Brown-connected, founded by four current undergraduates and aiming to provide improved home health care at lower cost.

“The research leads you to the problem … and then you try to find the solution,” Mechale said. “This methodology helped me to pursue my interest in entrepreneurship at a deeper level than before.”

It’s the same approach that led Jack Roswell and fellow engineering students Julian Vallyeason and Alex Zhuk to the idea for their venture, Cloud Agronomics. As first-years, they were doing independent research in plant physiology and remote sensing with John Mustard, professor of earth, environmental, and planetary sciences, and James Kellner, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. They were also designing and constructing a solar-powered drone they hoped would break the world record for the longest sustained flight of any unmanned aerial vehicle. After six months of work, the drone finally took flight — only to crash eight seconds later.

Roswell said the crash placed the friends at a “serendipitous intersection” of backgrounds, passions, timing in the industry, and a breakthrough in their research. Working with their professors, they observed that it was possible to extract valuable insights about a plant’s physiological processes from data collected via remote sensing, but those insights never left the lab. “So we decided to transition,” he said, “from designing a cool engineering project to creating a company and having a bigger impact.” 

To maximize that impact, Roswell and Zhuk — who come from farming families in Michigan and Ukraine, respectively — spent weeks on the ground traveling to research laboratories and farms across the United States to determine the biggest problems the agriculture industry faces, such as crop disease. Remote imaging provided a window inside each plant, while powerful analytics enabled them to identify disease weeks before any symptoms were available to the naked eye. For growers, that could mean minimum waste and maximum profits.

Today, Roswell, Zhuk, and David Schurman work full-time on the venture, which received support funding from the Nelson Center and took second place in the Brown Venture Prize competition in 2018. Since then, Cloud Agronomics has garnered not only millions of dollars in capital but recognition as well, including in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

In addition to working on carbon/sustainability initiatives with Microsoft AI for Earth, the company was named a breakthrough innovator for using agriculture to reverse the effects of climate change by Indigo Ag, itself a leading agtech company. In fact, Class of 1995 alumnus Mark Tracy ’95 left his position as vice president of Indigo Ag to become the Cloud Agronomics chief executive officer. Kellner and computer science professor Donald Stanford serve as advisers.

Other students are devising ways to use technology to improve human health.

When he walked into the required biomedical engineering capstone class, Gian Christian Ignacio, a Class of 2018 alumnus who will graduate from the Warren Alpert Medical School in 2022, wasn’t thinking about medical devices or start-ups. But he had long planned to integrate entrepreneurship and medicine in his career. “I want to help patients on a day-to-day basis, but at the same time I want to do something that will have a far-reaching impact,” he said.

So when cardiothoracic surgeon Neel Sodha, an assistant professor of surgery at Warren Alpert Medical School, presented the class with a real-life problem to solve, Ignacio took notice. Sodha explained that, after a patient undergoes cardiac bypass surgery, there’s a risk of debris from the aorta, such as plaque, entering a patient’s bloodstream and causing embolic stroke. 


Along with three other biomedical engineering students and Emily Holtzman, a Rhode Island School of Design student earning her BFA in textiles, Ignacio was inspired by the problem-based approach. They shadowed Sodha, even observing a heart surgery, and pooled their research, expertise and ideas. The result: a medical-grade mesh that more effectively filters embolic debris.

EmboNet, as the group’s capstone project is called, took first place in the Advanced Health Systems category of the 2018 Johns Hopkins Healthcare Design Competition. The team went on to place third in the 2019 Brown Venture Prize competition, and the $10,000 prize enabled them to continue working on EmboNet in that summer’s B-Lab. 

“ I want to do something that will have a far-reaching impact. ”

Gian Christian Ignacio Co-founder of EmboNet and student at the Warren Alpert Medical School

Ignacio believes being a student adds value to the problem-solving step. “We had the chance to hear about big problems that surgeons look at every day,” he said. “They’ve got years of experience and wisdom. We’re new. So instead of being stressed thinking about the problem, we brought fresh pairs of eyes to look at it in a different way.” 

Problem solving with purpose

Like its culture and curriculum, Brown’s brand of entrepreneurship transcends engineering, its historical home, and is decidedly interdisciplinary.

The center works with many partners across campus, such as the Carney Institute for Brain Science and the Institute at Brown for Environmental Sciences. Its course recommendations draw on a range of programs, including sociology, computer science, public policy, music and the visual arts. Warshay embraces the “accidental collisions” that come from such mixing. During B-Lab, he said, “we don’t have the social entrepreneur sit on the third floor and the capitalist on the second floor. Cross-pollinating leads to more effective solutions.”

Demers said that rooting entrepreneurship in a research university with a strong liberal arts foundation in its undergraduate curriculum makes it different from what MIT or Stanford offers. “All the cool stuff happens at the intersections,” he said. 

Textile designer Holtzman echoed the sentiment. “I always thought that entrepreneurship was about people just trying to make money,” she said. “But the amazing thing about Brown is that, because there’s no business school, everyone’s coming to entrepreneurship from their own concentration [and] personal interests, so they have a huge passion for whatever their business is. They actually care about their project.”

“ It’s a unique time in your life where you can move quickly, be agile. ”

Jack Roswell Co-founder of Cloud Agronomics and undergraduate student

That’s important to students who are impatient to solve the problems they uncover through research. “There are so many important debates about the future, but little to no representation of people our age who have the maturity and the hunger to make a difference,” said Roswell. “Also, it’s a unique time in your life where you can move quickly, be agile.”

Vavrovsky, who sees Formally not just as a business but also as a policy fix, agreed. “I study international relations, and what we get really good at is identifying policy problems," she said. "To find solutions, we need the smartest, most creative, most interdisciplinary, most diverse group of people working on these issues. And entrepreneurship is one of the ways to do that.”