Engineering students take lifesaving concept to market with help from university environment and donors
A little seed money and a lot of advice goes a long way for a budding entrepreneur.
Take it from the two Hokie engineering student founders of Park & Diamond, a young startup that makes collapsible, sleek bike helmets. After winning seven pitch competitions last year, many held by the Apex Center for Entrepreneurs, the company took off in a major way, earning top media coverage in outlets like The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
Recently, they closed a round of funding with lead investor and luxury automobile company BMW, which allowed them to make their first two company hires in their new New York City branch. They’ve kicked off production and are launching their stylish — and potentially lifesaving — products in the months to come.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, millions of Americans ride bicycles, but less than half wear bicycle helmets. In the event of an accident, not wearing a helmet can lead to traumatic brain injury.
Park & Diamond co-founders and College of Engineering students David Hall and Jordan Klein saw firsthand the potential devastation when Hall’s sister Rachel was hit by a car while riding her bike, leaving her in a coma for four months.
That was nearly three years ago, Hall said.
“We saw firsthand what the consequences of not wearing a helmet are, then we realized how big of a problem it was, and for Jordan and me, it was just kind of, you know, let’s change this. Let’s take action and change this,” Hall said.
So how’d they do it? According to Hall, who graduated in May from Virginia Tech with a degree in mechanical engineering, it was all thanks to the growing entrepreneurial community at Virginia Tech.
Between the increasing opportunities for funding and the guidance from faculty, industry leaders, and a strong network of like-minded peers, Hall said, the entrepreneurial community at Virginia Tech is “invaluable.”
“Quite frankly, if it wasn’t for the entrepreneurship community at Tech and Tech as a whole, we have no idea where we would be,” said Hall, a Mullica Hill, New Jersey, native, speaking on behalf of himself and Klein, a recent graduate from Chappaqua, New York, who studied engineering science and mechanics.
Hall said the environment works in large part due to the mentorship and support of industry giants — like that of a man believed to be Silicon Valley’s longest-serving CEO of a public company: Ray Zinn.
The 80-year-old entrepreneur, inventor, author, and philanthropist led semiconductor company Micrel for 37 years before retiring, though he uses the word “retirement” loosely.
“To be honest, I work harder now and longer than I did when I was working full-time,” said the disciplined author of "Tough Things First" and "Zen of Zinn," released in early 2018. “I wouldn’t call myself retired in the sense of the word that I’m off playing golf or I’m sitting on some rock in Hawaii.”
Zinn regularly speaks at and mentors students from universities across the nation in his spare time, largely due to how important he said his own university training was for his career success.
In October 2016, Zinn visited Virginia Tech’s Innovate Living-Learning Community to deliver a “fireside chat,” a tradition within the community wherein guest speakers share their wisdom and career advice. After he finished speaking to the dozens of students in attendance, including Hall, Zinn decided he wanted to do a little more to help.
“He spoke and was a really encouraging speaker and really honest and candid … and at the end of it, he was like, ‘you know what, I really like you guys. I’m going to donate money to help encourage you guys, encourage your startup, encourage your entrepreneurial venture,’” Hall recalled. “We’re all just sitting there like, ‘no way! This guy is just going to donate money out of the blue.’”
So began the first ZinnStarter program in the nation, providing an avenue for aspiring entrepreneurs to secure seed money that will help them develop their products and business plans while still in school.
“My goal is really to help the students learn,” Zinn said. “This is not for funding them when they leave school, it’s while they’re in school to help them develop those talents necessary that ultimately they can run their own companies.”
“I think that really speaks to him,” Hall said, “that he’s willing to take his time out to come down here, speak to us, share his story, and then also support us in another way.”
Since its initial launch at Virginia Tech in 2016, ZinnStarter has spread to four other universities.
But why start the program at Virginia Tech first? Zinn, who himself is not an alumnus of Virginia Tech, says it’s a two-part answer.
First, his son-in-law attended Virginia Tech, and Zinn always heard him talk “very positively about his experience,” Zinn said. Second, some of his best employees at Micrel came from Virginia Tech.
“I had so many great employees that came out of VT that I just had to learn more about the school,” Zinn said.
Initially, Zinn’s curiosity led to a relationship between Micrel and Virginia Tech’s Center for Power Electronics. Zinn helped the center find semiconductor equipment, enabling researchers to further their research.
Now, Zinn is impacting Virginia Tech students in another major way. Over the past two years, Zinn’s investment into the ZinnStarter program at Virginia Tech has funded several student teams that have since won a total of $205,000 through various pitch competitions and raised more than $500,000 in investment capital.
These projects run the gamut, from an engineering student startup that sells custom 3D-printed golf grips to a multimedia journalism student’s scholarship and financial aid advising service and beyond. Students from all disciplines can benefit from the ZinnStarter program, in addition to the other funding opportunities available through the Apex Center for Entrepreneurs, based in the Pamplin College of Business.
“My thought was if I can get them early understanding the principles of running a company, I think they’ll be more successful, because only one out of 10 startups succeed,” Zinn said. “And I’m trying to improve that to at least 50 or 60 percent that succeed.”
For Park & Diamond, the support of Zinn and the entrepreneurial ecosystem at Virginia Tech have given them the opportunity to tackle the massive problem of cycling-related traumatic brain injuries.
Hall said it wouldn’t have been possible without “having everything from the entrepreneurship classes to programming and speaking and having people like Ray Zinn come in and speak” during their time at Virginia Tech.
“We were 21-year-old college students trying to juggle college and everything else,” Hall said, “and having that support network and having that experience really support you as you’re taking those first few steps — I can’t imagine where we’d be without it.”
Written by Erica Corder