Celebrating five years of Brown’s hub for entrepreneurship

Launched in 2016, the Nelson Center is championing “the Brown way” of entrepreneurship: combining learning, research, and practice to support students in realizing their next big idea.

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A peek at the people, places, and priorities that make up the Nelson Center.

At the outset of the BrownTogether campaign, Jonathan M. Nelson ’77, P’07, P’09—founder and CEO of Providence Equity Partners—had a strong conviction.

He believed Brown was exceptionally well positioned to create a center for entrepreneurship that would capitalize on the interest in venture creation and problem solving that existed across the University.

“Brown is really good at interdepartmental collaborations,” says Nelson, who now serves as a fellow of Brown’s Corporation. “That's really important because innovation takes place at the interface of different disciplines. It was important that this center be at Brown, to do it the Brown way. In fact, I used to say that the surprising thing was not that we created a center for entrepreneurship, but that it hadn't been done before. The fit is so perfect.”

Prior to the launch of the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship in 2016, students developed their ideas through independent studies and collaborations across campus with the School of Engineering; the Program in Business, Entrepreneurship and Organizations (BEO); and the Swearer Center for Public Service, to name a few.

Successful ventures such as Casper Mattress, Rainwater for Humanity, 305 Fitness, and Premama maternity wellness products matured in this way. But, many at the University thought that uniting entrepreneurship resources and curriculum under one umbrella could attract a more diverse group of students and significantly expand the impact they could have on the world.

Five years—and additional campaign gifts from multiple donors—later, the Nelson Center is proving them right.

“ I used to say that the surprising thing was not that we created a center for entrepreneurship, but that it hadn't been done before. The fit is so perfect. ”

Jonathan M. Nelson ’77, P’07, P’09

Harnessing the entrepreneurial process

At the Nelson Center, students can engage in a structured curriculum that teaches entrepreneurship as a set of skills and processes, applicable in a variety of fields ranging from health care and environmental science to public policy and technology. 

“Our early-stage tagline when we launched was: Making entrepreneurship an essential part of the Brown experience,” says Danny Warshay ’87, executive director of the center. “Some people wonder, ‘How do you run an entrepreneurship center with no business school?’ We realized early on that not having a business school would be an advantage for us because we had the latitude to think much more flexibly and expansively about how entrepreneurship could apply to any student studying anything in Brown's Open Curriculum.”

As a result, the center’s courses and activities are tailored to the needs of the students, regardless of their concentrations. The center has added new courses, launched a certificate program in entrepreneurship, created signature internships, and developed both peer and alumni mentoring programs. 

In terms of financial support, students can receive Explore and Expand grants for early-stage idea development, work with Brown Technology Innovations to identify commercial support for research-based ventures, and earn investments from the Brown Venture Prize competition and Van Wickle Ventures, which are both funded by donors.

The founders of Cloud Agronomics, a company that measures and tracks global carbon stocks in agricultural lands, flourished as they took full advantage of the Nelson Center’s offerings and its alumni network. They received Explore and Expand grants and placed second in the Brown Venture Prize competition.

“There is resounding impact that comes from the nurturing the Nelson Center does while you're at Brown,” says Jack Roswell ’20. “We met with them quite frequently to attract talent, to discuss critical business decisions, and to help us to understand how to grow a start-up at the early stages.” 

The company now has 15 employees and has raised more than $6.3 million in funding. 

A seed takes root

One of the center’s most successful programs is the eight-week Summer Breakthrough Lab (B-Lab). Taking a supportive and rigorous approach to venture creation, B-Lab serves as a springboard for ventures to go on to larger, national accelerator programs or directly attract outside capital. 

Students who apply to B-Lab have a high-impact venture idea, a proposed solution to a particular problem, measurable objectives for the duration of the accelerator, and an eagerness to be part of a community. The center provides them with access to a roster of experienced mentors, funding, and dedicated space.

Elvia Perez ’22 went through the B-Lab program in 2020. Her venture, Empower U, addresses educational disparities by providing students with the resources and tools they need to obtain higher education.

“B-Lab gave me such an incredible sense of confidence and empowerment,” Perez says. “It also provided me with a community. Being surrounded by such amazing ventures motivated me, and it made me believe that we all have the potential to revolutionize the world.” 

Emma Butler ’20, founder and CEO of Intimately (an affiliate marketplace that sells lingerie for women with disabilities), came to B-Lab as a visual arts concentrator with the idea of designing her own clothing for women of all abilities. Her company is now focused on amplifying intimate apparel brands and providing an online platform for community members to discuss their wants and needs.

“B-Lab single-handedly changed my goals and aspirations for my future,” she said in 2019. “I went in as a designer for adaptive clothing with no interest in business, and now I have launched my company."

Intimately has been featured in Forbes, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and Women’s Wear Daily. The company is in the midst of raising additional seed funding and is preparing to launch its own lingerie line. 

This is the second year in which the B-Lab cohort had dedicated working space in the center’s new building on the corner of Thayer Street and Euclid Avenue. The facility, which opened in May 2019, was specifically designed to meet the needs of aspiring entrepreneurs. The 2021 B-Lab Showcase, where teams discuss their progress, will be held virtually on September 30.

Entrepreneurship for good

The Nelson Center has created two new funding opportunities for students who want to address consequential issues. One is in partnership with Brown’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America to develop innovative solutions that address aspects of anti-Black and systemic racism. The other seeks to mitigate the challenges of climate change.

“This past year and a half gave us an opportunity to think through a couple of specific critical priorities that our society is facing that we thought should be a priority for the center,” says Warshay. “We are empowering students to learn more about the problems, and we are motivating them to address those problems through the same methodology that we teach all of our students.”

The future looks bright for venture creation at Brown, as more students recognize entrepreneurship as a pathway to rewarding careers and social change. 

“The students, of course, are their own messengers. They're doing their thing, and it's contagious,” says Jonathan Nelson. “The fact that other people are sitting up and taking notice affirms what we're doing. We're on the right path.”

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