The summer before her freshman year at Cornell University, Lindsay Boyajian was touring Italy with her family when her father had a fashion crisis. “He was sick of looking like a tourist,” says Boyajian, 21. After assessing what the locals were wearing, her dad went shopping — and she went to work on a business idea: WeareverYouGo, a social media platform for sharing and shopping for fashion trends around the world. Though still in the early stages of development, the service aims to help tourists and business travelers solve the perpetual problem of what to pack — whether their concerns are practical, cultural or purely aesthetic.
This summer, while most college kids are working odd jobs or making copies as unpaid interns, Boyajian, a rising senior, is camped out in the Manhattan offices of OMD, the global media and marketing conglomerate with more than 8,000 employees. As a participant in the GE/OMD Incubator, she’s testing her elevator pitch on executives, fine tuning her business plan, and getting a crash course in marketing and funding, all the while working on the beta launch of her site.
The incubator, which is a joint effort between GE and OMD, is one of roughly 1,250 business incubators in the United States, according to the National Business Incubation Association (NBIA). Most of these programs, which are designed to kick-start business ideas, are sponsored by government entities or universities. There are many prominent incubators in the private sector, though they tend to either charge fees to start-ups or demand an ownership stake in the new companies in exchange for their support and services.
The GE/OMD Incubator, now in its second year, does neither. In fact, participants are paid a $4,000 stipend to spend the summer at OMD’s offices in New York. “Our model is really just about fostering entrepreneurship and driving innovation,” says Trevor Guthrie, East Coast director of Ignition Factory, which is the idea and innovation unit of OMD overseeing the program. What do the sponsoring companies get out of it? “It gives our digital and media planning teams exposure to the start-up culture,” says Guthrie. “Last year, we actually hired an individual from the incubator to join our team.”
This year, 16 individuals working on seven different projects were chosen from a pool of more than 300 applicants. While their backgrounds and ideas vary, they’re all student entrepreneurs with consumer-facing digital products. In addition to Boyajian’s worldly fashion platform, there’s Zoetic, which uses mobile computing and biometrics to solve practical problems, such as dozing off while driving; BestFriendBox, a monthly pet supply subscription service; The Active Generation, a social network that encourages physical activity among kids; Calenjoy, a service that recommends and delivers personalized events to an existing calendar; PearUp, which connects people with similar interests for, say, a tennis match; and Piggyback, a mobile app for discovering new things via trusted friends.
The 10-week incubator follows a curriculum that gives general advice and specific feedback on all stages of launching a start-up, from initial development to exit strategy. Just as important as the formal sessions and field trips (to, say, Google’s New York offices) is the interaction with the other teams, not to mention regular input from executives at OMD and GE. It all culminates with 10-minute presentations in front of GE and OMD executives, and a $10,000 grant awarded to the idea judged to have the most market potential. Of the seven companies that participated last year, five have gone on to receive additional funding from outside investors.
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Last year’s winner, Involvio, is now on its second round of venture capital funding, though it won’t say how much it’s raised so far. The company provides a web and mobile app for finding, tracking and organizing activities on and around campus. “When I was a freshman at Drexel University, I wanted to go to every single event but didn’t know what was happening,” says CEO Ari Winkelman, 23, who graduated a couple weeks ago. The company now has a team of five, users on more than 100 college campuses and in-roads with campus orientation directors looking to load events on student’s digital schedules.
“Things happened pretty fast,” says Winkelman, who credits the incubator with giving him access to experts in every aspect of his business as well as “really smart college students who could give us feedback,” he says, referring to the other student entrepreneurs.
Plus, camping out in OMD’s cushy downtown offices wasn’t such a bad way to spend the summer. “There are a ton of incubators out there, but being at an incubator inside an agency was incredible,” says Winkelman. “We were a bunch of college kids in the middle of this media empire.”