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LaunchLab at WVU Tech helps students bring big ideas to life

WVU Tech LaunchLab director, Nora Myers.WVU Tech LaunchLab director Nora Myers.

With any venture, sometimes getting started is the hardest part. Johann Goethe, an 18th-century statesman, author and scientist, famously said that “what is not started will never get finished,” and that simple concept has been the driving force behind some of the best businesses and inventions of the modern world.

Sometimes, it just takes that first step to build something big. That’s where the LaunchLab at WVU Tech comes in.

The LaunchLab is a startup resource center designed to help students develop their ideas for a company or product – and to turn those ideas into reality. The program was started on the Morgantown campus in 2014 and has 438 active clients in its database. In the past year alone, the program has helped fund 15 student ideas and raised $45,000 in funding. The lab in Morgantown has sent two teams to national pitch competitions and has assisted, through the WVU College of Law, with 42 patents and trademarks. 

The LaunchLab on WVU Tech’s campus wants to do the same for students and faculty here. 

Nora Myers is the director of the lab, and says she’s looking forward to building the program and getting students to realize the power of their ideas.

“I believe that entrepreneurship and innovation are the keys to economic prosperity for our students, the region and the state. I want our students to have all of the options available to them as they study, learn and build their careers,” she said.

Tools of the trade

When it comes to the entrepreneur’s toolkit, the LaunchLab has everything a student might need to get their idea up and running.

The lab starts out by framing an idea within the “Business Model Canvas.” It’s a popular and effective template for quickly developing new business models. Myers uses the tool to determine everything from the viability of an idea to its potential customers to ensure that the idea will work.

After the basics are covered and a plan of attack is established, students can use the lab to get down to business. The program offers tools and help with prototyping new products, developing a proof of concept (evidence that the idea is feasible) conducting market research, setting up intellectual property protections (like patents, trademarks and copyrights), recruiting team members and experts, developing a business pitch and accessing that first crucial batch of customers.

The LaunchLab also offers meeting spaces. The Design Lab is outfitted with a 3-D printer, a raspberry Pi for programming projects and an HP Sprout for interactive design work. There’s a Maker Space with shop tools, drills, saws and soldering equipment. The Wearables Lab contains sewing machines and other tools for fashion design. There’s even a One Button Studio where students can create videos for presentations, pitches and commercials for their product or business.

And those tools aren’t just for those working on their business. Myers said that sometimes knowing what one is able to do with the resources at hand is enough to inspire.

“We’re working on rolling out some casual workshops where any student that has an interest can learn how to use the lab’s equipment, like 3D printers, the Sprout and the Raspberry Pi. That will give them an idea of what they can accomplish. Plus knowing how to use these tools and technology is a valuable skill to have in your pocket when you’re on the job hunt,” she said.

Myers is also helping students plan for local, statewide and national pitch competitions, where they can test the waters on their business idea while potentially raising funds to get it started.

“The process of developing your pitch and observing the pitches of others can help you fine-tune your idea. WVU Tech students with business ideas are encouraged to enter these, and the LaunchLab can help them locate, enter and prepare for these competitions,” she said.  

An environment built for entrepreneurs

While the LaunchLab in Beckley is dedicated to serving the students and faculty at Tech, it’s part of a greater network of resources. It’s called the WVU IDEA Ecosystem and it’s a university-wide network of centers, offices and programs that foster and support innovation and entrepreneurship in the WVU System that will ripple out into the statewide community.

Myers said that the LaunchLab on the Beckley campus will serve as an access point for students and faculty to use the resources of the Morgantown LaunchLab and the IDEA Ecosystem.

Beyond the IDEA Ecosystem, the LaunchLab at Tech is also connected to the Hive project, an entrepreneurial development program of the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority.

“Hive headquarters are next to the LaunchLab in the Innovation Building, and while their mission is to work with those outside the university in a 12-county region, there are synergies with LaunchLab activities and we work together on certain projects,” said Myers.

Myers said that the specialized equipment in the LaunchLab – the 3D printer and shop tools, for instance – are provided by the Hive for use by students and faculty who are working within the program.

Getting launch ready

So you have an idea for a product or business. Now what?

Myers said that getting started with the lab is easy. Just stop in to see her in the Innovation Building, or go to launch.wvu.edu and start with the intake form. Select the Beckley Campus when completing the form and she’ll be in touch.

Then, just bring her what you’ve got.

“Bring whatever you have already developed. Notes, diagrams, pictures or the vision in your head. Sometimes students just have an idea and they want to bounce it off someone. Sometimes students are already running a business and want help to grow or change. And everyone in between. Come with whatever you’ve got,” she said.

Myers said the lab can also help students who have grand ideas but simply don’t want to run a business. An engineering student might think up a component or process that makes a job easier, but they don’t want to take on the responsibility of building a business around it. A nursing student might imagine a new device that would make caring for patients more efficient or an accountant might have a great idea for a budget app, but running an operation just isn’t in the cards for them.

“Those are students who can still use the LaunchLab,” said Myers. “We can help them flesh out their idea, make a prototype, apply for a patent or learn more about licensing their idea so that they can still bring it to life without having to take on the weight of building a business.”

And like Goethe, Myers understands that nothing gets accomplished until it gets started. Since getting started can be the single biggest hurdle, she’s on hand for that, too.

“If you have an idea but you’re not sure where to start, contact the LaunchLab,” she said. “We’ll work with you or get you to the right resource to turn your idea into reality.”

Explore everything the LaunchLab can offer on the program’s website. If you have questions or want to know more, reach out to Myers at 304.929.1289.