Mentorship and Growth Amidst the Pandemic: William & Mary alumni selected for prestigious Lighthouse Labs Startup Intensive Opportunity

For any budding startup, navigating the marketplace is challenging to begin with, but coupled with the pressures of a global pandemic, surviving anticipated growing pains as a young business is all the more complicated.

In these uncertain times, Lighthouse Labs, a nationally ranked non-profit accelerator, is reconfiguring its scheduled summer cohort program to accommodate the evolving social distancing guidelines. For the first time, the annual accelerator intensive will be offered entirely online.

Three out of the seven companies selected for this summer’s prestigious Lighthouse Labs Startup Intensive were founded by William & Mary alumni: Navattic (Chris Hoyle ’18), KINIS (Vincent Vu MBA ’18), and Pangea Chat (William Jordan-Cooley ’10).

To bolster business growth, the Startup Intensive provides Virginia’s up-and-coming entrepreneurs with mentorship, legal support, and $7,500 in equity-free funding. The founders will have access to companies and resources to help them with product development, sales strategy, customer discovery, and fundraising.

“Companies will learn about these topics from ICAP - a customer acquisition methodology program out of George Washington University,” Lighthouse Labs Executive Director Erin Powell said. “…Each company is assigned a mentor from ICAP to help with customer interviews as well as a Lighthouse Mentor to help with other business objectives. The outcome of the Program is that the 7 participating companies will conduct a Customer Demo Day on August 12, 2020, where they will share their leanings about customer acquisition based on their involvement in the program.”

The selective Startup Intensive will be executed remotely beginning on June 22 and will span an accelerated five-week period as opposed to the normally scheduled 12-week program. Although the annual accelerator typically offers unique in-person interaction and workshops, the virtual alternative will still incorporate extensive programming. Lighthouse Labs is also hosting a Startup Sprint beginning on June 15 in which the Startup Intensive companies will participate.

Through its intensive, Lighthouse Labs is providing W&M alumni with critical guidance and stability, as innovation is especially needed during this time to stimulate a volatile economy.

“Startups need support from our communities now more than ever,” Powell said. “With unemployment at record highs, we are dependent upon founders to have the support they need to take their ideas to the next level. Recognition from Lighthouse will mean connection to those vital programs and mentors who will help them succeed.”

Chris Hoyle ’18 is a co-founder of Navattic, a SaaS offering that enables organizations to seamlessly create and manage a repository of repeatable pre-sales demos. Navattic was founded in late 2019, and Hoyle explained that the concept arose from a need that he and his co-founders identified within the sales engineering space.

“We noticed that tailored pre-sales demos would chronically be re-built for each use-case,” he said. “We thought there had to be a better way to store and share different use-cases sales engineers were building. After extensive customer interviews and beta testing, this led to the development of Navattic.”

Hoyle said that for Navattic, it is a tremendous honor to be recognized by Lighthouse Labs and be a part of the summer cohort. Hoyle first learned about the intensive when his professor, Entrepreneurship Center Executive Director Graham Henshaw, took a group of students to visit the companies participating in the Lighthouse Labs fall cohort during his junior year. He said that it was evident on the excursion that the teams had made undeniable progress since entering the program. The firsthand look at the intensive and mentorship from Henshaw led Hoyle and his co-founders to apply for the summer cohort to further Navattic’s growth and acquire new skills.

“We are a team dominated by technical founders and it would be highly beneficial to learn about areas outside our core-knowledge base, like sales methodologies and legal best practices,” Hoyle said. “Additionally, as recent college grads we’re excited to learn from the experienced members of Lighthouse Lab’s extensive alumni and mentor network.”

Vincent Vu MBA ’18 created KINIS, a minimalist footwear startup based in Richmond, VA. KINIS designs and manufactures sock-like training footwear made of highly durable material to help people move naturally.

With his mother and younger brother in 1990, Vu fled Vietnam at the age of seven. Subsequently, Vu and his family spent six years in the Galang Refugee Camp in Indonesia and another two in Vietnam before being approved for asylum and taking up residence in Iowa for a year. They ultimately landed in Richmond, VA where Vu put himself through school, earning his master’s degree.

Vu’s inspiration for KINIS, although unknowingly at the time, dates back to the hours he recalls playing soccer and running shoeless throughout the refugee camp as a child. Vu’s passion for both athleticism and engineering fueled KINIS’ founding. He was further compelled in 2011, after reading “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. With the goal to maintain and highlight the natural shape of the human body, Vu began researching and designing what would become the lightweight, minimalist “sock-shoe” product.

According to Vu, the acceptance of KINIS into the Lighthouse Labs summer cohort is an important milestone. He is confident that support and mentorship gleaned from the intensive will enable KINIS to strategize a long-term marketing plan for growth.

The pandemic has negatively impacted company revenue Vu said. He is hopeful for the stability and resources that the intensive program will offer.

“I hope to define a clear long-term marketing plan while looking for an opportunity to raise money for 2021,” Vu said. “We are seeing a negative impact on revenue for the last 2 months; this will cut the projected revenue for 2020 by 50%. The grant money from LHL will help us cover the operating expenses to sustain the business.”

Hoyle expressed a similar sentiment to that of Vu.

“It’s been a challenging time to grow a company in the midst of a pandemic due to market uncertainty, however, the Lighthouse Labs program has provided a great opportunity to keep building on our progress this summer and beyond,” Hoyle said.

Pangea Chat founder and native Richmond-er, William Jordan-Cooley ’10, is also thrilled to have been selected and recognized by Lighthouse Labs. He explained how the world of a startup founder is incredibly exhilarating and yet uncertain at times due to the lack of consistency.

“It’s thrilling because you can do anything,” Jordan-Cooley said. “But wading through so many unknowns is also psychologically trying. You’re not getting the affirmation and corrective feedback or general human support that we normally get from those institutional structures that we spend most of our working life within. That’s a big part of what makes accelerator programs like Lighthouse Labs so important for startups and their founders. Lighthouse Labs has a network of mentors, investors, and fellow founders that can provide that guidance and support.”

Pangea Chat is a mobile and web app that assists users in learning a language while texting with friends. Jordan-Cooley revealed that both a personal need to learn Spanish as well as his ambition to design a new way to learn languages led him to begin development in the spring of 2017. In January 2020 he formed Pangea Chat LLC.

Jordan-Cooley detailed the basic functioning of the application.

“With the help of in-chat translation and dictionaries, learners can jump into real communication using their target language from Day One,” he said. “You can then practice your new words and phrases with practice games automatically generated from your chats.”

He is hopeful that, with the aid of Lighthouse Labs, Pangea Chat can build pilot programs of the app within classrooms in Virginia.

“One specific goal that I have, and hope to achieve with the help of the program, is to establish pilots of the application in Virginia classrooms,” Jordan-Cooley said. “We’ve started to gain some traction in Barcelona and we’re looking to connect Spanish students learning English with the complements in Virginia.”

Jordan-Cooley said that when schools transitioned to online learning earlier this year, teachers and administrators were scrambling to figure out how to continue instruction virtually.

“That’s going to continue into this coming school year given the possibility that schools remain closed or with limited capacity due to social distancing measures,” Jordan-Cooley said. “This recognition from Lighthouse Labs is going to help put Pangea Chat on the radar of language teachers looking for ways to engage and educate their students online.”

Since its founding in 2012, Lighthouse Labs has accelerated 48 startups through upwards of 3,000 hours of mentorship programming. Subsequently, those companies have raised around $80 million in capital and generated over 950 jobs.