Innovation boom: Batten Institute gives local entrepreneurs a boost

Last year, the first-ever Tom Tom Founders Festival kicked off with a community pitch night that brought $1,000 to the audience's favorite business proposal. This year, the Festival, which celebrates and promotes local innovation, is starting out with a similar pitch night called "U.Pitch. C'ville Decides" when it kicks off on April 11– but the prizes are bigger. In fact, they're much bigger thanks to a partnership with the Batten Institute at the Darden School of Business, which is using the Festival's opening night as a way to celebrate the expansion of its business incubator program to welcome entrepreneurial community members in addition to Darden students.

The Darden/Tom Tom partnership delights Tom Tom founder Paul Beyer. "It's a community facing incubator that is unique in the country," he says, "and a preeminent institution is using a community facing festival to help launch it."

The Darden School's incubator program, officially now called the W.L. Lyons Brown Innovation Laboratory but dubbed i.Lab for short, launched about a dozen years ago as a way to help business students take their concepts from classroom to real world. Successful i.Lab start-ups include the local travel booking business Hotelicopter, which recently sold, as well as multiple life sciences companies, says Philippe Sommer, director of Darden's Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership. Sommer took the job eight years ago and quickly recognized value in expanding the reach of the incubator.

"I said, 'This is great, but if you want Charlottesville to be more dynamic, you really need to reach out beyond the walls of Darden.'"

The i.Lab expansion, made possible by a donation from alum Lyons Brown, includes a million-dollar renovation to the space, a former dining hall located between Darden's gatehouse and the Law School, as well as the hiring of a full-time i.Lab director, Cathy Carr, who previously worked at venture capital firm Tall Oaks. The renovation includes the addition of a first floor coffee shop.

"We believe strongly that caffeine and sugar are important," Sommer says with a laugh, noting there will also be classroom space and a large open space featuring printers and computers that will serve as the main work area, as well as private offices and conference rooms.

"We'll cater to companies at lots of different stages," says Sommer.

Those accepted to the i.Lab program spend 10 weeks over the summer working full time on their business launch, attending seminars, and enjoying use of a full complement of UVA resources including free legal services through UVA Law School. The support services extend over the course of the year, Sommer says, and an $8,000 stipend is given to those selected for the program.

Sommer says most applications to the i.Lab are subject to rigorous review, and while successful ideas have run the gamut from energy bars to phone apps to music booking websites, those that have succeeded share at least one trait.

"They're business ideas where the person has done something that we have a term for: 'derisking'," he says. "They've tried to go out and demonstrate, without spending a lot of money, that there really is a market for this."

For the top winner of the Tom Tom Community Pitch Night, acceptance to the i.Lab program is guaranteed. Second and third place winners will take home $3,000 and $2,000 respectively. Audience members pay $10 into the pot, and are given tokens, which are used to vote for their favorite pitches.

Last year's winner was Sandra Carter, the owner of a Sixth Street convenience store, who hoped to bring healthy food options to her neighborhood, and Sommer says he's excited to see what this year's Tom Tom pitch winner will have in mind.

"I think at times, Darden– and UVA– has had a town and gown issue, that people think, oh, UVA, they do what's good for UVA," Sommer says, citing efforts being made University-wide.

"Sullivan coming to UVA has had a big impact on saying, 'We're part of this community,'" Sommer says, "If we're going to make this a more interesting place to be, UVA has to extend out into the community."

U.Pitch. C'ville Decides takes place April 11 at 6:30pm at the i.Lab space. Other applications for i.Lab are accepted beginning March 1.






1 comment

This is an exciting article. Thank you.

The applications for the Pitch night will open on March 1. We will have Pitch training sessions later that month with Hack Cville (student technology incubator) and Piedmont Council for the Arts. Learning how to present a project and succinctly explain the value to an investor or the community is really useful and valuable for everyone -- artists, entrepreneurs, non-profits, innovators.

Stay tuned at or at