SparkLab seeks to ignite the entrepreneurial spirit at Union

Publication Date

Roger Woolsey stood before a small group of students gathered early on a Thursday night in a second floor conference room of the Becker Career Center.

Woolsey, the center’s executive director, and a series of guest experts have worked for weeks to encourage and inspire the entrepreneurial spirit of students across disciplines who are interested in bringing a business idea to market.

A logo that reads: SparkLab

“There are days when you are an entrepreneur, and you wake up in the morning and you have all the confidence in the world because you have had great conversations and things seem to be moving,” Woolsey tells the students. “And there are days when you wake up and can’t even tie your own shoelaces because you are down, and your confidence is broken. You have to be patient and embrace the mistakes and hardships.”

The students are among the inaugural class of SparkLab, a six-week entrepreneurial initiative created by Woolsey. Thirty-three students signed up after an announcement was shared seeking participants. The experience level among the students varies. Some simply want to learn more about entrepreneurship, while others have a concept they wish to develop. The more advanced have a venture idea in search of refinement.

The group hears from accomplished alumni and outside experts about basic business principles, including market sizing, corporate and tax structures, and legalities. Sessions also address fund-raising, competitive analysis and creating a pitch deck.

The program will culminate with a pitch competition Thursday, May 12, at 12:40 p.m. in Reamer Campus Center auditorium. Six teams of students get two minutes each to pitch their idea to a panel of judges for a chance to win $15,000 in startup capital. The prize money is a gift from an anonymous donor.

Most of the ideas pushed by students in SparkLab center on mobile apps, ranging from connecting certified cooks with customers for homemade meals to a sports betting system that allows users to select specific analytics that may be determining factors in the outcomes of a game.

Sean Regis ’23 and his twin brother, Justin ’23, are working on an app, QuicShop, aimed at helping personal shoppers who shop for others on platforms such as Instacart and Shipt complete their lists more efficiently.

They intend to use indoor mapping technology and wayfinding (blue-line navigation similar to Google Maps GPS) so the app will direct a shopper to the most optimal route to each product on the list.

SparkLab has been helpful in developing the brothers’ concept.

“This is like a breath of fresh air,” said Sean Regis, of Cedar Grove, N.J. Both he and Justin are economics majors.

Jack Rampe ’25, is working with Garrett Butler ‘25 and Andrew Lavin ‘25 on an app, Branch Out, which hopes to facilitate cognitive dissonance by connecting users to converse with others who hold differing viewpoints and values.

Rampe has appreciated the opportunity to hear from the guest experts, which have included a corporate attorney, a portfolio manager and an entrepreneur in residence at a nearby university.

“It’s been great to make important connections,” said Rampe, from Warwick, N.Y. He has not declared a major.

“Even when SparkLab is over, I know I can still email the guest speakers and ask questions. It is good to know they will still be there to help.”

EyeSpy Inc., a company created by Finlay MacDonald ‘24, a mechanical engineering major from South Glastonbury, Conn., and Leonardo Ferrisi ‘23, a double major in computer science and neuroscience, aims to combine augmented reality and neuroscience to create next generation pair of augmented reality glasses indistinguishable from regular glasses. It will also incorporate facial recognition to allow the user to identify and call people they know by name from far away.

MacDonald enjoyed SparkLab and the exposure to fundamental ideas crucial to entrepreneurship. He did have one suggestion for next year, though.

“It would be helpful to have an assignment outside of meeting once or twice a week,” he said.

Woolsey is already thinking about changes for next year.

“Instead of only mentoring, we want to have coaches,” he said. “We want to match one or two alums with each student group and have them coach each team right up through the competition.”

The first SparkLab focused on for-profit enterprises, but Woolsey expects to expand it to include social enterprises next year.

On this particular Thursday night at Becker, Woolsey spends a considerable portion of the time focused on creating the perfect pitch deck.

A strong pitch deck - a 10-12 slide presentation that provides a short summary of a company, the business plan and the startup vision - is critical to attract potential investors. It can make or break an idea.

SparkLab, Woolsey believes, has prepared the students to shine.

“You have all used your liberal arts background to problem solve, to be agile, to be disciplined and to be flexible in only six weeks,” Woolsey tells the students. "You are ready."