Back in grad school, budding entrepreneur Christina Hawatmeh’s biggest hurdle was learning to code. She had no background in engineering or computer science, so she asked a bunch of first-year engineering students to teach her.
“I would hang out with freshmen engineers and they would say, ‘You have to pay us $50 an hour to learn,’” Hawatmeh recalls. “Later, I realized they were conning me.”
After discovering that the undergrads were charging way more than the going rate, the Columbia University master’s student got connected with peers who helped her build out the prototype for a new photo-sharing platform she had envisioned. Now, with the help of Columbia Startup Lab, her company Scopio is up and running.
Columbia Startup Lab, a partner and member of WeWork, operates out of WeWork SoHo West. This incubator program is for Columbia alumni who started their own businesses during grad school and are serious about pursuing them after graduation.
Hayley Katz, the program’s coordinator, says she finds it inspiring to see so many young entrepreneurs helping and supporting each other.
“Many of these companies are attempting to solve some of the biggest problems the world currently faces,” says Hayley Katz. “It is amazing to see them grow over the year they spend here.”
Another person benefiting from Columbia Startup Lab is Linh Le. He remembers that he almost quit his doctoral program in order to focus on getting his idea to market.
“I had been working on the business idea for about a year by that point, and I didn’t see a lot of progression,” Le says. “So I thought to myself, ‘This is the time I need to be focused on the business. If not now, I will not have a second chance for a business project like this.’”
Although he was frustrated with his lack of progress, he stayed in grad school because he figured it was the best place to find a co-founder.
“Thinking back, I made the right decision,” Le says. “Even if I was working full time, it wouldn’t have been going anywhere without the right co-founder.”
While pursuing his doctorate, Le helped invent an ink-jet printed electrode that could sense minute changes in its environment. He patented the idea, finished his program, and joined Columbia Startup Lab so that he could devote all his attention to his tech startup called FlexTraPower.
Le and his co-founder, a fashion designer, are exploring ways to use the electrodes in clothing that can monitor everything from heartbeat to body temperature. Women could use the clothing to monitor their ovulation cycles, Le says. Parents could keep an eye on kids who are running a fever.
Because of the subsidized office space at Columbia Startup Lab, Le says he’s able to put every dollar possible into his startup. He’s been able to attend numerous workshops on starting a new business and meet with potential funders.
“We’re on a serious growth plan”
Ben Gordon, co-founder of Wandering Bear Coffee, remembers exchanging knowing glances with another business school student at Columbia.
“We both walked into class carrying mason jars of cold brew coffee we made ourselves,” Gordon says. “We looked across the room and realized we both had it, and that’s how we hit it off. Pretty soon we were talking about starting a cold brew company.”
Gordon remembers how focused they had to be in order to get the project off the ground. They had to say ‘no’ to most social gatherings and miss out on happy hours and weekend trips with other students. As fellow students left on a short trip to Puerto Rico, they couldn’t imagine spending three or four days away.
Their dedication paid off. While still in business school, they won $32,000 during competitions hosted by Columbia.
Unlike other companies that require a lengthy runway to get their product off the ground, the co-founders were able to expand fairly quickly. They were shipping coffee to 100 offices spread over five states within the first few months after joining Columbia Startup Lab.
“Had I not decided to go to business school I may not have started a startup,” Gordon says. “Now we’re in Columbia Startup Lab, and we have access to an amazing space and are involved in the entrepreneurial community.”
Gordon says the program is helping them to focus on continued growth.
“We’re on a serious growth plan,” Gordon says. “We’re definitely looking to grow dramatically and quickly over the next 12 months and beyond.”