Student entrepreneurs have a new place to create, collaborate, and learn
Like most college students who start their own businesses, Brennan Hurst launched his startup essentially from his Blacksburg apartment. He, his business partner, and team would meet in Newman Library to iron out the details of their startup, Locurated, an Uber-like delivery service.
Now that Hurst, a senior at Virginia Tech, and his team are back on campus, they have a physical location to meet and put their heads together, along with receiving needed support and advice for their newest startup, Vis-AR. It’s an augmented reality software that runs in smartphone browsers.
On Blacksburg’s North Main Street, they will find a new home for Virginia Tech’s Apex Center for Entrepreneurs. This 6,000-square-foot technology-enabled, posh space is located above PK’s Bar & Grill, which formerly housed Tech Pad, a coworking location, at 432 North Main Street.
Apex opened at this new location on Sept. 20. The Virginia Tech community was invited to a kickoff event there on Sept. 29 at 7 p.m.
The Apex Center, which is housed in Pamplin College of Business, provides interdisciplinary programs and support to students like Hurst who want to become entrepreneurs or learn more about starting a business. Apex was launched in 2014 inside a small, 500-square-foot office space in Pamplin Hall. Over the years, the program has grown rapidly, and it is one of the reasons that the Princeton Review ranked Virginia Tech No. 25 in undergraduate entrepreneurship programs last year.
The center works with approximately 3,500 Virginia Tech students annually and at least 40 startup teams a semester, groups that it coins its Startup Hokies community. Now, in its much larger home, the center’s staff and students can collaborate, and the center can host workshops, pitch competitions, and other programs. This wasn’t possible in its former space. Previously, Apex had to host student programs in pop-up locations, such as auditoriums and classrooms, throughout campus.
“Our pop-up model for running programs made it challenging because students had no consistent place to go,” said Derick Maggard, executive director of Apex. “They didn’t know where to find us on a day-to-day basis. Now, we’re going to have this space to call our own. It’s going to be very transformative for us and our students.”
Locating Apex in close proximity to shops and restaurants is part of the new space’s “allure,” Maggard said, and it matches similar innovation spaces atop retail buildings in large urban areas. The goal: To increase the center’s visibility of entrepreneurship and innovation to the public and to be accessible to the student teams that Apex serves.
In the downtown space, “we can have our general team meeting, walk to a restaurant, get some food, and hang out and build team dynamics,” Hurst said.
Plus, being close to other businesses is key.
“Apex needs to be where the students are, it needs to be where it can help them make connections with entrepreneurs,” said Robert Sumichrast, dean of the Pamplin College of Business. “The downtown location is a good place to accomplish that part of the mission.”
Renovations to the new Apex home began in the fall of 2020. The main entrance opens from an elevator into a lounge area, outfitted with multicolored couches, white board walls, tables, and white and green plush swivel chairs. A kitchen and cafe area is located in the middle of the space, with a tall table and white high-top seats.
This will serve as what Maggard calls the Startup Hokies community area.
Generally, the Startup Hokies community is where students who are interested in entrepreneurship can come to learn about how to start a business and see the full portfolio of programs that Apex offers.
“We view entrepreneurship as an open invitation,” said Maggard. “We have programs to meet students where they are and get them going, and our new space allows us to take this to a whole new level.”
Through the new space and Startup Hokies programs, students can meet others interested in starting businesses. Also, those who are actively working on a new venture can participate in more formal programming, such as the incubator or accelerator programs.
Startup teams are selected for the incubator or accelerator programs depending on the stage of their business. Early phase teams are selected for the incubator or build programs, where they can access the space after hours, attend workshops to help them refine and develop their ideas, and gain insight from alumni mentors.
The student business ventures at more advanced stages are placed in the accelerator or launch lane of programs. In this phase, businesses typically are generating revenue and actively selling a product or service. Student startups in the accelerator programs receive additional resources, including after-hours access, coaching from a dedicated alumnus mentor, and non-dilutive (equity free) seed funding.
The new space also houses an office for Apex’s entrepreneur-in-residence program, as well as offices for the Apex staff and conference rooms. The renovation work has been funded by contributions from members of the Apex advisory board, which include Brian Callaghan, Ted Hanson, John Kinzer, Win Sheridan, Todd Headley, Paul Lombardi, Jonathan Perrelli, Adam Rossi, and Russ Thomas.
The space will be open to all members of the Startup Hokies Community on Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and for extended hours from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. for students in the incubator or accelerator programs.
“Students don’t always work the typical 9 to 5 [day],” Maggard said. “They often work on their startups at night outside of standard class hours. We want to be that collaborative, flexible space where students work in cross functional teams to bring new products and services to market.”
Though the majority of Apex students come from Pamplin or the College of Engineering and stand to benefit from the center’s new space, often some of the student business teams that win pitch competitions comprise Hokies from more than a few disciplines, Sumichrast said.
“It fits in well with what Apex is trying to do and frankly the entire university,” he said. “We are developing more collaborative programs, and Apex is a good representation of that goal.”
Currently, Hurst’s Vis-AR is in the incubator program at Apex, but he hopes to move to the accelerator phase soon.
“We have a pretty solid model for how we plan to make money from it,” he said. “Once you prove your business, you want to accelerate that. They [Apex staff] give you a lot of resources.”
Hurst, a computer science major, said at some point in his career, he wants to be a full-time entrepreneur.
“I like structuring my days myself,” he said. “That’s what kind of made me want to do this kind of thing. I do enjoy communicating with people and networking and directing a team.”