startup is a fast-moving time for entrepreneurs.
ask Philippe Sommer, director of the i.Lab at the University of Virginia and
director of the Darden School of
Business Batten Institute’s Center for
Entrepreneurial Leadership. Not only has he been in the hot seat as an
entrepreneur himself, he watches the rapid rate of flux and change among
startups every season as he oversees the i.Lab Business Incubator program.
pitches our cohort made on the first day of the 2015 program were better than
the first pitches from any other year,” Sommer said, “but by the end, some had
DreamPower, founded by
Alexander Bazhinov (MBA ’15), and Contraline, founded by Kevin
Eisenfrats (Engineering ’15), were two such startups. As businesses, they have
little in common. DreamPower is an energy efficiency services company that was
able to quickly approach customers and start earning revenues. Contraline is
developing a revolutionary new form of male contraception, which may take years
of research, development and regulatory approvals before it enters the market.
both finished the 10-week 2015 summer i.Lab Incubator pitching a much different
story than when they entered.
DreamPower, the shift was born of opportunity.
is an idealist. He believes reliance on fossil fuels to generate energy is the
biggest threat facing humanity today. More importantly, he believes he can help
solve the problem, which motivated him to start DreamPower.
company offers a fixed monthly fee for electricity to businesses that is
guaranteed to be lower than their existing power bill. In exchange, DreamPower
makes energy efficiency improvements at its customers’ buildings, driving down
their energy usage and allowing DreamPower to profit on the difference between
the monthly fee it charges and the actual charge for electricity used.
conversations with his current and prospective customers, Bazhinov discovered
the traditional circuit breaker box was a major opportunity to drive more energy
savings. If he and his customers could more easily control when and where
electricity was flowing in buildings, they could eliminate a lot of energy
so the CircuitBot was born — Bazhinov’s prototype of a smart circuit box, a
wireless device he thinks of as the Nest Learning Thermostat for circuit boxes.
Nest, of course, being the smart thermostat that turned thermostats from an
afterthought to one of the hottest consumer electric goods on the market
design is slick, easy to use and functional, doing what all circuit boxes do
while also including smart technology features like energy usage tracking,
programming to control lights and home appliances, energy usage spike alerts,
and even the ability to integrate with other smart devices like a Nest
Thermostat to maximize energy savings.
was able to come up with such a comprehensive suite of features by listening to
the problems his customers needed solved.
investors saw the possibilities, too. After his final pitch to close out the
i.Lab Incubator summer program, Bazhinov said all anyone wanted to talk to him
about was the CircuitBot.
he is working with the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science to further develop and refine
the prototype. He is also working with UVA to secure patents for the technology.
Unlike the energy efficiency services offered by DreamPower, the CircuitBot
will require serious capital to develop, which is why he’s currently seeking
the CircuitBot may be the exciting product DreamPower leads with as a free or
low-cost offering to secure a lucrative energy efficiency services contract.
One thing Bazhinov is sure of, though, is that DreamPower will not evolve into
a product sales company.
vision is for a clean energy future and I want to help customers realize that
vision, so energy services are essential,” Bazhinov said. “I don’t just want to
sell them a product and walk away.”
endgame for Contraline was always to offer nonsurgical contraception for men,
Eisenfrats just thought that providing a more humane alternative to neutering
male dogs and cats would serve as a promising first market for the product.
it turns out, even solid demand from consumers and a unique, effective product
aren’t always enough to crack the nut. Especially when a middleman is involved.
this case, those middle men and women are veterinarians, who have been
profitably neutering animals for decades with little incentive to change. Eisenfrats
discovered many vets were not familiar with the latest research on the dangers
of neutering and that change was a complication they weren’t yet willing to
the principles of lean startup, the market research should be done before
product development,” said Eisenfrats. “When I was coming up with the idea for
cats and dogs, I didn’t talk to vets first. I saw demand from pet owners and
figured that would do. It was our fault for not doing enough market research.”
setback didn’t change the fact that Eisenfrats had led the development of a unique
product. Contraline has enough potential that, after winning multiple UVA
entrepreneurship competitions, the venture was selected as one of only seven
finalists for the nationwide Collegiate
other contraceptive polymer gels that block the vas deferens and thus block the
flow of sperm, Contraline is “echogenic” — the gel can be imaged using
ultrasound devices so that doctors and nurses can check its stability and
ongoing effectiveness. Contraline can also be applied “percutaneously,” which
means no surgery — a major advantage over traditional vasectomies. It is
effective for years but can be reversed at any time, and the end result is a vastly
preferable alternative to vasectomy.
question, then, was how to fund Contraline through years of research and development
for humans without a market for dogs and cats producing revenue.
Dr. John Herr, director of the
UVA Health System’s Center for Research in Contraceptive and Reproductive
Health and a leader in the field of reproductive biology, had teamed with
Eisenfrats as a partner in the venture and had some ideas. The two met years
ago when Eisenfrats, then an engineering undergrad working in the doctor’s cancer
research lab, first shared the idea behind Contraline.
his contacts in the industry, Herr was aware there was little to no market for
pet contraception, but he also knew of a Holy Grail for nonsurgical animal
sterilization — the Michelson Prize. Launched in 2008
by the foundation Found Animals, the incredible $25 million prize will be
awarded to the first entity to provide a qualifying low-cost, permanent,
nonsurgical sterilant for male and female cats and dogs.
helped Eisenfrats devise a plan to develop Contraline in such a way that the
venture could compete for the massive prize while also hitting crucial
milestones on the way to securing regulatory approval to use the gel on humans,
such as successful testing on two animal species.
the prize is no sure thing, Herr is also using his extensive connections in the
medical profession to help Contraline find partnering opportunities that will
bring resources and development benefits to complement Contraline’s competitive
is also leading an effort to secure angel investors who can provide a total of
around $400,000 in seed funding. “Kevin’s product is mature enough,” Herr said.
“He is going to be able to get capitalized.”
to Herr, Contraline’s biggest advantage is Eisenfrats, a recent graduate who is
thriving in an arena dominated by doctors and experienced researchers.
is a force of nature. He is able to absorb a lot of information,” Herr said. “The
reason this really has a chance is because Kevin understands the business plan
changes every day; that he needs to be extremely flexible and adaptive.”
The University of Virginia Darden School
of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare
entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D. and
Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for
teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research.
Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public
university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Sophie ZunzDirector of Media RelationsDarden School of BusinessUniversity of VirginiaZunzS@darden.virginia.edu+1-434-924-7502
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