This is the true story of seven students, picked to live and work together, to find out what happens when skilled undergraduates stop looking at their education just through the lens of the classroom, and start jumping in to tackle real-world needs.
Though it might feel a little like a call-back to a certain 90s-era reality television show, the Stamford Startup Studio – a unique, one-year, co-op style educational experience offered through UConn’s Peter J. Werth Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation – is giving seven UConn undergrads an opportunity to hone a wide array of skills as they live and work together in Stamford.
“The Stamford Startup Studio is an entrepreneurial co-op program that has been designed to allow students to build their entrepreneurial skill set and to learn what it means to start building product,” says Tara Watrous, the Werth Institute’s head of entrepreneurial transformation. “An intensive experience like the Stamford Startup Studio really allows students to accelerate their development and enhance their entrepreneurial skill sets while gaining design, engineering, and product management experience.”
The pilot cohort includes students from the School of Engineering, the School of Fine Arts, and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, with majors ranging from mechanical engineering to human development and family sciences to digital media and design.
The goal of the program, says Werth Institute Director David Noble, is to help students develop the core competencies that they need to succeed in our increasingly digital economy.
“What we tried to accomplish with the creation of the Stamford Startup Studio is to enable life-transformative education through hands-on experience and mentorship at a really, really deep level,” Noble says. “This is a huge investment in individual students – way beyond what most programs do – that takes the theoretical to the applied and really drives home how to be excellent in many of the different digital skills.”
Working with community partners, who serve as the cohort’s clients – as well as a slew of staff and mentors to help advise and guide their progress – the Startup Studio students are primarily engaging in a series of “sprints” – projects where the students are presented with a client’s problem and then have to develop tangible solutions to meet the client’s needs.
It’s a process that has already had an impact on how senior Solange Wright ’22 (CLAS) approaches her own work as an entrepreneur.
“I’ve always had a lot of ideas,” she says. “I would say I’m very entrepreneurial, but I’ve always had solution-first ideas. This has taught me how to have a problem, and then create a solution for the problem – so thinking problem-first, rather than solution-first. That’s been just a radical shift in how I think.”
For their first sprint, the students were asked to develop a solution to help make planning weekend activities an easier and better experience for friends and family groups.
“Stamford is an evolving social ecosystem – there’s so many things to do in Stamford,” says Wright, “but it can be difficult to navigate.”
“We actually went out, talked to business owners, talked to young professionals who live in Stamford, and did one-on-one interviews as well as well as online surveys and engaging with different groups through Facebook and online,” says Jamison Coté ’22 (SFA). “And we also researched Stamford demographics and its surrounding areas.”
The team found that for young professionals between the ages of 20 and 32 – people in college or who were young in their careers – people were struggling to form plans, to coordinate schedules in their busy lives, and to find venues of mutual interest where they could connect socially with their friend groups.
With that customer discovery information in hand, the team designed a web application prototype called WKDNR. The app allows friends to create accounts that link them together as groups, and surveys the individuals about their personalities and preferences – What kind of food do they like to eat? Do they like adventurous outdoor activities, or would they rather go to a concert? Do they have a car, or do they rely more on public transportation?
The app then helps a member of the group to choose a date, a price point, and the types of activities they want to do; builds an itinerary for a get-together – complete with links to make restaurant reservations or buy train tickets – and sends an invitation through the app to all the members of the group.
“The idea is that it creates a collaborative platform for people to plan group experiences,” explains Wright.
The glossy and engaging prototype for the app is currently in the testing and design stage – the team plans to build it out fully over the course of the spring semester.
“When they first started, this was just a crazy concept,” says Noble. “But we can now see the company that will be behind this. It’s Yelp on steroids – a real company in another 24 months.”
The second sprint is exploring options for refitting an existing retail building space in Stamford to be used as potential expansion space for the UConn Stamford campus. The process has involved designing the space, working with stakeholders, sourcing materials, and estimating costs.
“One problem that we saw is that the UConn Stamford space is relatively crowded,” says Jake Winter ’22 (ENG). “There’s always the need for more space. So our job as a team was to come together and explore what some different approaches could be for more spaces outside, potentially, to free up some space here and do some new, interesting things.”
When they first started, this was just a crazy concept. But now we can see the company that will be behind this. — David Noble, director of the Werth Institute
The team used technologies included in new Apple iPhone devices to map out potential space in the existing Park Tower Stamford – a property, located at 1 Broad Street, that is close to the main campus and UConn Stamford dormitories – and to make a 3D virtual model. The team then used a program called Unity to create a virtual walkthrough of their refit space, accessible through Oculus VR headsets, so that stakeholders will be able to take an actual virtual walk through the refitted space.
“We didn’t expect to create a full 3D design of what this space would look like, because no one really knew how to do it,” says Winter. “But then people picked up the skills, we got access to technology that we didn’t have access to, and then we were able to do it. Things just ended up working out.”
The refit includes plans for a café, a lounge seating area as well as a bar-seating space near a bank of street-level windows, a co-working space, and a retail area. They’re now preparing to offer a final presentation of their work.
While this first cohort has focused on technical challenges in the local real estate and construction industry, the program could be replicated across a variety of different sectors, says Watrous.
“The students have come into this program with the expectation that they will be working full-time, but there are several elements of their experience that have been really amazing to watch unfold,” she says. “They’re networking with a wide variety of professionals and local community leaders. They’re meeting politicians. They’re working on a local space in Stamford and doing a refit, so they’re working with project managers, the building manager, and a wide variety of other stakeholders.”
Watrous continues, “They thought that they were going to get a problem and create a solution, and it was going to be a very technical, focused program. But here they are, building a wide variety of skills. They’re learning about politics. They’re learning about the inner workings of Stamford. And then they’re also learning their technical skills.”
It’s all part, says Noble, of the Werth Institute’s overarching goal to support students’ entrepreneurial efforts and equip them with the tools needed in a today’s dynamic workforce.
“The mission of the Werth Institute is centered around creating opportunities not yet dreamt of – we want to remove any sort of limitations that they may have developed in their own head as to what they can be,” he says. “The elite career paths come from early starts in technology that require technical training beyond what you learn in the classroom. Through the Stamford Startup Studio, our students will be able to demonstrate the quality of what they’ve done to those employers looking for the very best students.”
For more information about entrepreneurial programs and opportunities offered through the Werth Institute, visit entrepreneurship.uconn.edu.