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College Ventures Network aims to level the playing field for student start-ups

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: October 13th, 2021

A detailed article on the College Ventures Network appears in the September issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe access the complete article, or for further subscription details, click here.

A consortium of more than two dozen student-led accelerators from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom this summer launched College Ventures Network, a global coalition that hopes to link student start-up founders with the money and support they need — but so often can’t access.

The effort is the brainchild of Stanford University undergraduates Grant Gordon and Enya Lu, who are co-managing directors of the school’s only student-run start-up accelerator, Cardinal Ventures. Among other student-led accelerators participating are those from Harvard University, Brown University, Stevens Institute of Technology, University of British Columbia, Northeastern University, Rice University, and UC Berkeley.

For now, College Ventures Network (CVN) is loosely organized. “We’re just a group of equals,” Gordon says. “We organize through a Slack channel. We meet as a group quarterly, and more frequently in smaller groups to plan various events.”

The first big event was a Demo Day in June designed “to share resources, support student founders, and provide broad-based access to top-tier capital for the next generation of incredible student founders,” according to the official event description. For that forum, each student-run start-up accelerator selected its best commercial prospect to present to a unified group of investors.

By putting all that commercial promise in one place, “the investors get better deals, and the founders that are really committed to working on the companies get a larger pool of investors,” Gordon comments. “It’s a very simple value proposition.”

The CVN has bigger plans, of course, including another Demo Day in Spring 2022 and smaller events at various intervals. Also on the drawing board is a definitive guide for how to start a student-led start-up accelerator.

Gordon says the idea for CVN stemmed from students around the world reaching out to Cardinal Ventures, which was the first student-led start-up accelerator, asking for guidance on starting accelerator programs on their own campuses. “We were seeing our calendar getting filled with endless conversations, which were wonderful, and we learned a ton,” he said. “We thought, why don’t we just bring all of them together so we can all talk and learn from each other?”

The timing was right, he said, given “the rise of so-called Gen Z VCs,” a term referring to venture capitalists born after 1995 who are newly empowered to write checks for promising ideas. “This new class of investors is leading a new wave of interest.”

Among all the discussions with students elsewhere, he said, a common theme of “trying to level the playing field” when it comes to obtaining early-stage funding emerged, which ultimately spurred the foundation of CVN.

Stanford has many advantages that others don’t, such as being close to Silicon Valley, a history of successful start-ups from its ranks, and a number of alumni who are noted venture capitalists. “Normally, getting folks to show up to our events at Stanford is relatively easy and insanely hard anywhere else,” Gordon notes. “One thing that was most consistent from every conversation that we had, especially for folks in the middle of the country, is that it’s just impossible to get investors to take your company seriously.”

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