With all the well-deserved hype around the events of this weekend’s Better World by Design, now in its eighth year, it was easy for many students to forget about the newcomer to the already-ample lineup of fall conferences at Brown: Startup@Brown. Organized and run by Hack@Brown (Valentin Perez ’18 is lead organizer for both) and the Brown Entrepaneurship Program, Startup@Brown was a weekend-long conference in Alumnae Hall and Smitty B focused on connecting students with startups. Through a series of speeches, fairs, office hours and workshops taking place from the 26th-27th, Startup@Brown gave students a crash course in entrepreneurship. Blog checked it out to see just what exactly startup culture is all about, and whether its correspondent’s idea for a chain of nightclubs inside giant floating zeppelins could make it to an initial seed round.
The conference opened with a keynote by Eveline Buchatskiy, director at Techstars Boston, on the general path of beginning a startup, and was followed by lunch and the general startup fair. At the fair, roughly 20 startups and startup-related firms gathered to speak with students and recruit potential candidates for internships and jobs.
The general atmosphere was one of enthusiasm. According to Jason Miller, a representative from data software firm Cloudera, “the fact that [Startup@Brown] was selective was really special. It was branded well, and it makes sense why the companies you invited are here.” Miller also emphasized the extent to which Brown alums and students are enmeshed within startup culture across the country. At Cloudera, “two of the core engineers went to Brown, and about almost a third of our entire data science department is Brown-educated.”
This recurrent theme — Brown’s close relationship with the technology industry and startup culture — often helped make the event feel like less of a professional networking event and more of a gathering of friends and former fellow students united by an interest in entrepreneurship. Brown student and Startup@Brown attendee Hans Wang ’17, a CS and Economics dual concentrator, noted that he’d “seen a lot of former TAs here with the companies.”
Like its sister event, Hack@Brown, Startup@Brown was undoubtedly CS-dominated, but the open and inclusive nature of the event — applications for the event’s 350 slots were approved through a random process — meant that all those interested in startup culture were welcome. Philip Mathieu ’17, a physics concentrator, said that the event drew him less because of its focus on computer science and more “because [the attending startups and venture capital firms] are doing interesting cool things.”
The startup fair on Saturday gave Brown alums and some of the current students ample time to catch up and network with a variety of firms, including well-known startups like Pinterest and venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz. After the fair, students could attend a variety of workshops, ranging from the ‘Path to Entrepreneurship’ with Teespring CTO Evan Stites-Clayon to ‘Product Management’ with Delphix Director of Product Management Jason Grauel.
On Sunday, a 10 a.m. brunch kicked off a series of small group conversations with representatives from startups, where students could get to know the reps and ask them questions about their experiences working at startups. Beyond the conversations, attendees also had the option to attend talks on user experience and legal matters.
In addition to the general enthusiasm for the selection of companies and the experiences of the workshops/small group conversations, special praise was reserved for the skilled organization and overall experience of Startup@Brown. Dylan Field, a former Brown student and Thiel Fellow who left the university his junior year, said he was impressed with how it was structured, noting that such well-run events did not exist when he was a student. (Field now works at picture-editing software startup Figma.) Max Elisman ’15, back in town to represent data visualization company Interana, also expressed appreciation for the level of care that had gone into organizing the event.
The event concluded with a speech by Y Combinator partner Kevin Hale, who spoke on the practices at the prestigious tech accelerator before answering questions on the firm’s plans for the future and other topics. Topping off everything was the general goodbye and the opportunity to grab a Startup@Brown t-shirt.
The verdict? Although our pitch for project funding went south — the venture capital representative cited the Hindenburg as an example for why a giant flammable balloon filled with dancing people might be an inherently bad business plan — the event proved to be a highly useful, exciting, and ultimately fun experience for both seasoned founders and startup newbies alike. More importantly, as the first of its kind, Startup@Brown had a remarkably stumble-free initial iteration. The organizers and attendees can undoubtedly look forward to exciting new developments in future versions of the conference. In the meantime, would-be entrepreneurs can keep updated on registration for spring 2016’s Hack@Brown to fulfill their creative and collaborative urges in the startup sphere.
Images via Valentin Perez ’18.