The inaugural VFL Summit for veteran entrepreneurship
On June 27, the Veterans Future Lab celebrated the culmination of its first Apex program with an afternoon of insights, inspiration, and networking
Last month, the Veterans Future Lab hosted the inaugural Veterans Future Lab Summit, celebrating the achievements of our first graduating cohort of veteran entrepreneurs. Fourteen startups, all part of VFL’s Apex (a year-long incubator that provides military veterans, DoD affiliates, and their spouses with resources that help them create and grow high-impact companies) completed the program this summer.
Held at SAP Next-Gen in Hudson Yards, the event was informative as well as celebratory. “The purpose of this event,” announced James Hendon, Director of the Veterans Future Lab, “is to provide as much support as possible to the veterans who are graduating this first year of the program.” Attendees were encouraged to mingle and network with other guests and speakers, including the keynote speaker, Todd Connor, CEO and Founder of Bunker Labs.
A US Navy veteran himself, Todd created Bunker Labs to help military veterans and their spouses start and grow businesses. As he spoke on the unique reasons and advantages veterans had as they embarked on entrepreneurship, he said, “We can’t help each other if we don’t know each other” — and invited attendees to open up their LinkedIn app and immediately connect with everyone located nearby, i.e., at the VFL Summit. His practical and inspiring speech had many in the audience taking notes. “Entrepreneurship, at its best,” Todd told the crowd, “is not a pursuit for big money. It’s an invitation to take the weird and creative specific ideas that you have in your head and bring them into reality.”
This was a sentiment that was reiterated by 2 veteran entrepreneurs — Jeremy McCool and Steven Forti—at a fireside chat moderated by Elana Duffy, founder of Pathfinder.vet and an alumna of the VFL’s Veterans Entrepreneurship Training program. Jeremy’s startup, HEVO, is a wireless electric vehicle charging company that he founded 8 years ago, after serving in the US Army and learning how deadly air pollution could be. Steven’s FitFight, a mobile application that encourages athletic competition, was thought up while he was in service as a Green Beret in the Army Special Forces. Both pointed out that their companies began as genuine passion to create something out of an idea rather than an easy source of money. In fact, they quipped, launching a startup is possibly one of the worst possible ways to make a quick buck.
“When I first started HEVO, I started it with $800,” said Jeremy. “No technology, no team, just vision. As I started the company, I realized that I had the opportunity to build a company with the mission, vision, and values that I wanted. And that’s what resonated with the cofounders who were brought in. They loved the idea, but they were coming into a company that had no technology, no money and no customers. But how do you get smart people to come work for a company and get paid nothing for 3 years?” The key, according to McCool and Forti, is finding team members who are as determined and enthusiastic about the product as they are. It’s a lesson both founders learned in the military: your team is everything.
Getting the money to further a startup’s goals was another hot topic for the panel focused on Investing in Veteran Entrepreneurs. Moderated by Jamaal Glenn of Alumni Ventures Group, speakers Kevin Eckert of Task Force X Capital, Mindy Aviles Kelly of the Partnership Fund for New York City, and Jason E. Klein of OnGrid Ventures and the Harvard Business School Alumni Angels of Greater New York talked about working on the venture capital side of the startup ecosystem, and offered advice on how and where to find funding. The panelists explained that the process of getting funding can be in-depth and involved, but there’s flexibility as many capital organizations are generalists.
“There’s no particular focus on a sector, per se,” Mindy said. She leads the social impact investments at the Partnership Fund for New York City. “We do look at the stage the startup is in. We talk to founders to get a sense of things — like, if they’re in the right zip code, is their approach to the problem they’re solving appropriate? And if that’s the case, we put together a project team that does a deeper-dive analysis of the company.”
Kurt Becker (Vice Dean for Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at NYU Tandon — and leader of the Future Labs) and Steven Kuyan (Managing Director of the Future Labs) talked about the impetus behind launching VFL: Creating a home for early-stage veteran entrepreneurs, like those who had graduated from our Veterans Entrepreneurship Training (VET) program. The afternoon offered the opportunity to learn more about some of the startups being incubated at the Veterans Future Lab’s Apex program. Sean Bonner demoed the Guild Securities app, a self-directed brokerage platform that allows users to view the anonymized performance of other users to leverage crowd-sourced intelligence. Paul Buijs showed Fit Events Inc., a platform for users to find and register for fitness and endurance events.
Yefim Kelmanskiy and Igor Lev displayed Eureka, the workplace platform that speeds up the onboarding process for new engineers. David Fingal showed FormThought, which allows anonymous performance feedback network meant for professionals to learn and grow. Donna Sanders displayed Social Solar, her web app that helps urban residents consume and store energy. Monique Porter, Carlos Cole, and Dean Sheridan displayed ThermoClearcc, which uses nanotech in the installation of snow-melting and ice-prevention systems in properties. Terry Kim showed Reals, his social video platform that encourages users to share authentic, unfiltered side of their lives. Michael Holt displayed Real Broadcasting, his platform for broadcasting scheduled, searchable content — which also live-streamed the entire VFL Summit program.
The second Apex cohort starts this month — sign up here for news about our latest batch of veteran-led companies. The Veterans Future Lab is also currently accepting applications for its Veterans Entrepreneurship Training (VET), a free skills-based educational program for early-stage entrepreneurs or those looking to transition into entrepreneurship.