Past $100k Winners Forge Ahead in Times of Uncertainty, Sharing Lessons from the Field
From social impact-oriented retail to biotechnology and industries beyond, the novel coronavirus has changed the way companies do business. For startups, where there is often no playbook, the magnitude of pandemic-related impacts can prove to be greater in size – bringing both challenges and opportunities.
On Tuesday, July 14, the Tufts Entrepreneurial Alumni Network (TEAN) – in collaboration with the Tufts Entrepreneurship Center and Office of Alumni Relations – hosted “Tufts Entrepreneurs Tackle Tough Questions - Checking in on Past $100k New Ventures Competition Winners.”
Several winning startups from the past 4 years came together and shared how their startups are adapting to a new normal as well as lessons learned along the way. Featured panelists included:
- Alex Rappaport, MSIM ’18 (Co-Founder and CEO, ZwitterCo)
- Amanda Wang, MSIM ’19, (Co-Founder, Potencia); Jun Hyung Yoon, MSIM ’19 (Co-Founder, Potencia)
- Jake Lombardo, MSIM ’19, (Co-Founder, Anodyne Nanotech); Konstantinos Tzortzakis, MSIM ’19 (Co-Founder, Anodyne Nanotech)
- Peter Sacco, F17, (CEO & Founder, Adelante Shoe Co.)
The discussion, which was the fifth one in a series of webinars, was moderated by Shelby Schultz, a 2012 Tufts University alumna, member of the TEAN national chapter and Chair of the Austin, Texas group. “I’m inspired by the entrepreneurial problem-solving spirit present in Tufts students and I believe that it’s important to continue to foster that spirit and learn from each other,” Shelby said, kicking off the discussion.
For each of the startups, the month of March brought immense changes to their startups. The realities they faced, though different, were important learning moments.
“When we transferred from offline to online, there were a lot of changes just regarding the business, like daily operations,” said Amanda in regard to her venture that makes English-language learning classes accessible to local immigrant and refugee communities. She added, “During this transition, there were a lot of challenges but now we’re trying to adapt to this new model and bring more technology into this nonprofit business to empower people.”
“Since this pandemic, we were able to test and validate that kind of online setting. It was more testing out the reaction, both from the tutor side and the learner side,” Co-Founder Jun added.
In the scientific research area for ventures like Anodyne Nanotech – a startup refining drug delivery – and wastewater treatment solutions provider ZwitterCo, new opportunities emerged in their industries and internally.
“All throughout this process, we made sure that we had other industries and other sources of potential commercial opportunities,” said Alex. “Knowing that one market has macro forces that you can’t really predict means that you have to reprioritize and refocus some of your other opportunities.”
In the last month, ZwitterCo had its first sale in the enzyme concentration space and secured an onsite pilot demonstration of its technologies in the bioethanol markets.
For Anodyne Nanotech, Jake said, “Some of the new vaccines that could be coming out might be delivered via microneedle. That’s something we’re really excited about. In general, microneedle successes propel our industry forward.”
Despite the new opportunities in their varying industries, there were several challenges, too. Peter noted that the pandemic fundamentally changed the way that his mission-driven startup that produces made-to-order shoes operated.
“We’re a direct-to-consumer company that last year got 42 percent of its sales out of physical retail locations,” said Peter. “Thus far in 2020, that channel is non-existent … so for us, it was about figuring out how to pivot the product, the way we were positioning the product, and the way we were selling it in a way that resonated more effectively with the moment.”
To better meet the needs of customers and pivot sustainably, the company has started selling household-oriented footwear like moccasins. “It’s all e-commerce now,” said Peter, noting a retooled focus away from “growth at all costs” towards “profitability in a sustained way.”
As the world slowly returns to normal, past $100k New Ventures Competition winners will draw on their experiences during the pandemic to inform their decision making moving forward. While there was no playbook to guide their pivots this year, the teams behind these startups are quickly writing it along their journey.