i.Lab incubates STEM start-ups

Start-up incubator provides mentorship, finances and space to new entrepreneurs


The Darden i.Lab supports start-ups focused on everything from agricultural sustainability to data storage

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

The i.Lab at University’s Darden School of Business is a resource provided to students — many in STEM fields — to help build their skills in entrepreneurship and connect with a network of experienced mentors. One of the biggest resources currently available at the i.Lab is the Incubator Program that provides a $5,000 grant, workspace and workshops to companies selected through an application process. 

Sandra McCutcheon,  i.Lab’s program manager,  says that many of the companies that work with the i.Lab come to them at a very early stage, and may not even have a working product yet. However, she emphasizes that the i.Lab is also a huge educational resource for these budding companies to provide them with skills in their future endeavors as well. 

“One of the most important things that I think comes out of the incubator program are the relationships … we connect these people with those who can help them with the process of building their company,” McCutcheon said. 

In order to promote these relationships, i.Lab hosts a number of networking events such as Charlottesville Entrepreneurship and Espresso, a monthly event that includes a one-hour presentation from an entrepreneur that is open to the public. 

Babylon Micro-Farms, a company that is working on designing products that help customers grow their own fresh produce in their homes, utilizes the resources of the i.Lab as one of the companies involved in the Incubator Program. 

“Our mission is to empower people to grow their own fresh produce and to take back their nutritional independence because making local organic food is currently a luxury good, but it’s the one thing that shouldn’t be,” said Alexander Olesen, co-founder of Babylon Micro-Farms. “Being able to change that through integrated technology and natural processes is a special thing.”

Olesen said that the i.Lab provided his company with necessary space to think and create as well as resources to help him learn about the process of making his product “shelf-ready” and available to be sold in stores. 

Ali Barta, a student at the Darden School of Business, founded a company that works in the i.Lab and wishes to provide natural remedies to those suffering from infections such as Urinary Tract Infections. 

“My goal is for the company to give people options when it comes to medicine so that they can take medicine rooted in nature first and reserve conventional medicine — like antibiotics — for when they really need them,” Barta said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.

Barta says that she finds great value in being surrounded by the diversity of creators in the i.Lab and that mentors help her think about the future of her company, ways to increase sustainability, and increase effectiveness. 

Jim Finnerty is a founder of bitCloud, a company that works on helping CIOs effectively and securely store their information. He says that through the opportunity to work with i.Lab, he has been able to effectively network and find new customers. 

“Our first customer was a cold call,” Finnerty said. “In part, some of the guidance I got from mentors from the iLab gave me the confidence to start charging for what we were doing. Our second customer… was a referral from a mentor that lead to another referral which lead to another referral.”

Finnerty says that the most valuable part of his partnership with the i.Lab is the mentor community due to the feedback, perspective, guidance and confidence in an element of business that involves many roadblocks and uncertainty. 

The i.Lab continues to expand the ways in which it can provide support to early stage ventures through developing new programs linking the sciences and business. 

“We are… expanding the pilot of a technology commercialization initiative, in partnership with programs in Engineering and Medicine, forming multidisciplinary teams composed of graduate students in business and PhD students in the sciences,” David Touve, director of the i.Lab, said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. 

The i.Lab team hopes to encourage and educate entrepreneurs in the University community by teaching them skills for success, but also how to accept a failure and learn to further better their companies for the future. 

“We … have this shared belief that you fail hard and fail fast,” McCutcheon said. “It’s not always going to be your first company that becomes the big success. It’s going to be your second. So we have a mission here to educate, to give these people skills, even if their first company doesn’t work out.”

related stories