One by one, they strode to the front of the room and made their two-minute pitch.
A bot programmed to purchase high-demand e-commerce products. A digital tool to help the elderly with estate planning. A social media movement to promote data-backed wellness.
No, this wasn’t the latest episode of Shark Tank, or one of the many startup competitions that happen around the world.
This was the first day of the New Ventures: Develop class, and the people up front – known in the course’s nomenclature as “builders” – were Duke students pitching ideas to their classmates, who ranged from Trinity undergraduates to Pratt Ph.D. candidates.
Gathered in an expansive room in the Fuqua School of Business, dozens of students – the “joiners” – deliberated over which founder they would collaborate with for the rest of the semester. If a builder couldn’t convince enough joiners to form a team, they would have to drop out of the course.
Up front, controlling the two-minute timer, beaming as the students made their pitches, was Jamie Jones, the new director for Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship and the faculty member teaching the course.
Teaching the NVD class is one of the many ways in which Jones hopes to fulfill her mission of introducing as many Blue Devils as possible to entrepreneurship. Jones, who took over as director for Duke I&E in July 2022, envisions the program blossoming to involve more students and faculty among the campus community and even alumni.
“Our goal at I&E is that every single student at Duke has an entrepreneurial experience while they’re here,” Jones said.
The overwhelming popularity of the NVD class – Jones had to double the size this semester and add a co-instructor – is a testament to the ongoing success of that mission. As early as this fall, Duke I&E will have a new, expanded co-working space, a creative hub for students from across campus and from a variety of disciplines.
“The goal is actually to spark creative collisions,” Jones said. “Because what happens is these serendipitous engagements that we have, by just crossing paths with each other, sitting at a table and chatting, is where new ideas are sparked.”
Every Duke student, she said, should have a chance to develop the “entrepreneurial mindset” – a set of skills that are essential for succeeding in today’s economy.
“It’s questioning and curiosity. It’s creativity, empathy for your user, managing uncertainty through intentional action, and then resilience and learning to fail. Those are the core elements of the entrepreneurial mindset, and those are going to be valuable no matter what you go do,” she said.
Jones was not always steeped in the world of business and entrepreneurship. A scientist by training, she has a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin.
But she realized that the impact of her scientific work would be minimal if she didn’t understand how to wed revolutionary technologies with concrete business plans.
Addison, a second-year MBA student from
Miami, founded Allergood, a startup that provides interactive digital menus that filter for allergens and dietary preferences. With three children who have food allergies, Addison wanted to create a product that would help people navigate dining out. Create
your profile, scan a QR code for a restaurant menu, and the Allergood site filters that menu to show only foods that meet your dietary preferences. Although the idea for Allergood originated before Addison took the New Ventures: Develop class, the class accelerated the company’s development and helped clarify Addison’s long-term vision. “[The class] is one of the reasons I came to Duke,” Addison said. “It’s really what jump-started most of Allergood’s growth.” Professor Jones, in particular, has been an important mentor for Addison. “She does so much to connect people. She’s opened so many doors for me, that I otherwise would have spent a long time trying to open myself.”
Michelle Addison is working with the staff at Eastcut Sandwich Bar in Durham to pilot her Allergood app.
Agbai Eke Agbai Jr. M.B.A.’22
Agbai credits the NVD class for giving him a “bias for action.” In September 2022, he turned a dream into action by organizing a pop-up art exhibit for African tribal art created by David Obi. The 14-day exhibit in Atlanta, which sought to help people learn more about African tribal art, generated $2,000 in revenue. The 33-year-old Agbai said the NVD class gave him the skill set to execute this plan. “The class essentially teaches you and prepares you on how to take something that is in your head, something that exists as an idea form, and to build it out such that you have this idea take on a tangible form,” he said. Agbai hopes to eventually host other African art exhibits in Paris and Naples – to showcase African art on a global stage.
Agbai used the skills he learned in Jones’ class to put together a pop-up exhibit of African tribal art.
Joe Robertson '21
Robertson received his bachelor’s from Duke in 2021 and went to work on a master’s in Innovation & Entrepreneurship. A standout on Duke’s varsity men’s lacrosse team, Robertson tore his ACL in spring 2020. With the onset of the COVID pandemic, Robertson was forced to do physical therapy at home. That experience became the impetus for founding Revenite.ai, an iOS application that harnesses artificial intelligence to analyze body movements and provide personalized health insights. After establishing Revenite.ai in September 2020, Robertson continued developing the product through the New Ventures: Develop class, which he calls a “mini-accelerator.” Robertson credits the class with helping him develop more logical, creative thinking. “The course really emphasizes some fundamental basics about entrepreneurship, in terms of reducing risk, understanding product market fit, and building a product that solves a problem,” Robertson said.
Robertson’s iOS app uses artificial intelligence to analyze body movements.
Gordon Silverman M.B.A.’21, Mahek Chhatrapati M.B.A.’21 and Andrei Assa M.B.A.’21
Chhatrapati and Silverman credit the New Ventures: Develop class for connecting them as a team. In 2022, they and another Duke graduate, Andrei Assa, founded DocNexus, whose NeuroGraph Search platform aggregates and organizes healthcare industry data essential to pharmaceutical and medical device businesses. Chhatrapati envisions DocNexus transforming the global healthcare ecosystem in the same way that Bloomberg radically altered the financial industry. Though the idea for DocNexus came after the NVD class, Silverman says the class was crucial for DocNexus’ eventual development. “We wouldn’t have started a business together if it wasn’t for joining this class, joining a team together, seeing how each other worked, being tested in a business context for what challenges we would face later on,” Silverman said.
From left: Silverman, Chhatrapati and Assa: Jones' class prepared them for the challenges of starting a business together.
“To me, entrepreneurship is the way that you ensure that the work that you do – the brilliant ideas that you have – actually have an impact in the world,” Jones said.
She earned her M.B.A. from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and became executive director of the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Rice University. Jones ultimately gravitated to Duke because of the enormous amount of entrepreneurial expertise at the university.
“We truly have one of the broadest and deepest research faculties that actually study entrepreneurship and innovation in the world, period. We don’t talk about it enough; it’s something we need to talk about more. But from the cognitive psychology department to our law school to the faculty here in the business school, we have faculty who are at the cutting edge – at the frontier of knowledge in entrepreneurship and innovation,” Jones said.
To help more Duke students learn about entrepreneurship, Jones’ goal is to provide a variety of hands-on experiences. In addition to working with startups, Duke I&E supports students with ongoing creative projects – screenplays, stage plays, music compositions, novels, podcasts, and more – as well as others building their personal brands as influencers and creators.
I&E’s Student Founders Program provides mentoring and, potentially, resources to any Duke student interested in creating a product or service. And a “creator’s lab,” which would provide co-curricular offerings to aspiring social media influencers, is also in the works.
As for the New Ventures: Develop class, many of the students who pitch and develop ideas in the course continue to develop their projects after graduating. Others take the skills they have acquired in the class and apply them to other professional settings.
Jones stays in regular contact with alumni who have taken her class, and her former students often call her to ask for advice.
“The power of the Duke network is the fact that we’re all so connected and people are responsive,” Jones said. “There are tons of entrepreneurs, and they are all willing to help other Dukies. And so that’s the fun part.”