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The University’s Tech Takeover
Spotlight on students and alumni who are joining the ranks of young ‘techpreneurs.’
February 19, 2014
By Brittney Dunkins
Though the George Washington University is not Silicon Valley, a host of young entrepreneurs from the campus community are taking their cue from the start-up capital and turning their ideas into action. George Washington Today spoke to five students and alumni about their burgeoning tech ventures.
Check out profiles below of the university’s new class of techpreneurs.
The Activist Agents
For GW alumni Ben Sassoon, B.A. '13, Sam Ramprakash, B.S. '13 and Preston Reynolds, B.A. '13, developing an application was always about creating “free technology for people who make a difference.”
Branchweave, LLC, launching this year, does just that.
The Facebook utility transforms a lifetime of activism into shareable content, creating colorful charts that diagram every donation and cause. The idea spawned from Mr. Sassoon’s personal difficulty making a visually interesting compilation of his internships at multiple nonprofit organizations.
The trio joined forces in 2009 as undergraduates, successfully creating campus representative programs for Soapbox Soaps, Moocho and other companies. Now, they’ll use their expertise to help launch Branchweave.
Our hope is that there will millions of users who enjoy Branchweave and find it useful,” Mr. Sassoon said.
The Mental Health Advocate
In a world where Siri can tell you the way home and Netflix diagrams your taste in movies, it made sense to alumnus David Conway, BBA '13, to create MyPsych, a smartphone application that helps manage mental health through organizational tools. From adding emergency contacts to creating step-by-step safety plans, MyPsych streamlines the patient-therapist process.
Mr. Conway, one of five recipients of the 2010 National Federation of Independent Business Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, transformed his love of coin roll collecting into a business in 2007, when he founded CoolCashCoins and developed a smartphone application that measures the melt-value of coin rolls. After publishing his first book, “Strike it Rich with Silver in Coin Rolls” in 2011, Mr. Conway shifted his attention to MyPsych.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Awareness Services Administration will integrate MyPsych into the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Mr. Conway said.
“MyPsych technology cultivates positive emotional well-being,” he added.
Much like Mark Zuckerberg, the hero of his favorite movie, “The Social Network,” Tywan Wade, a sophomore studying economics and business administration, doesn’t like to hear the word no. Which is why last summer, he taught himself to code over the course of three days with minimal experience.
“I reached out to more than one hundred professors for their help to create an application and received responses saying that it would be ‘unrealistic to create in the timeframe that I wanted,’” he said “I was tired of being told ‘no’ and wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.”
The result of his self study: Shortly, one of the first utility applications that tells users what to wear based on the weather. To date Shortly, available for purchase in the iTunes store, has been downloaded in more than 40 countries and is represented in more than 1,000 cities.
Mr. Wade’s “impossible dream” recently landed him an invitation from media mogul Ariana Huffington to become a guest blogger for the Huffington Post.
“I look forward to building a career in journalism and entrepreneurship that will inspire others,” he said.
The Entrepreneurship Guru
Senior Christina Nanfeldt launched her first startup CauseCrave, a company dedicated to global awareness and philanthropy among high school students, when she was 16 years old. Now she’s channeling her experiences into StudentStartit, a web-based mentoring site that guides budding entrepreneurs through the steps of starting a business.
StudentStartit placed third among undergraduate competitors in the 2013 Pitch George competition and was also selected as a client by the GW Law Small Business & Community Economic Development Clinic. The site, which was partially funded with prize money from the competition, is set to launch at the end of February for beta testing.
“I've met and spoken with many students who have great business ideas, but they are hesitant or unsure of how to pursue them,” said Ms. Nanfeldt, president of the GW Entrepreneurship Club. “For the most part, the reason that they don't take the leap is because they lack the entrepreneurial knowledge and resources to build a business.”
With internships at Facebook, Hearst Digital and Entrepreneur First among others under her belt and a new position at WeWork, Ms. Nanfeldt hopes to leverage her passion for entrepreneurship and connections to expand StudentStartit at universities across the country and inspire her peers to start businesses.
“If the website proves to be successful, we will offer a premium version of the website where students can pay more to receive access to capital and additional features,” she said.
Who, what and where are at the core of Yapper, the free mobile application developed by a trio of GW School of Business M.B.A. students, Justin Lichtenstadter, Dane Hinnen and Rob Wyant. Launched in the iTunes App Store in January, Yapper is a messaging application that offers location-based chat.
Chats are aggregated based on proximity to the five-block radius of a user’s location and are deleted after 30 minutes of inactivity.
“My partners and I realized that there was nothing out there that connects us to our community and what is going on around us,” Mr. Lichtenstadter said. “Yapper bridges the gap from your phone to reality by enabling communication with people who are experiencing the same thing, whether that is a baseball game, networking event, a campus speaker or a happy hour.”
The application has proved successful in its early stages, garnering 800 downloads in the first week. In the next year the team hopes to build the user base in D.C., complete a seed round of funding in the spring, and later create an Android app.
Mr. Lichtenstadter’s advice for young entrepreneurs?
“Don’t build something because you can or because it sounds cool. Go out and test the viability of the product before you even begin development,” he said. “I never thought I was going to pursue app development, but I stumbled across a problem and realized that I had the solution to fix it.”