About six months before he graduated from the University of Vermont in May, Eric Grunfeld launched his startup company and began developing what he believes is a first-of-its-kind product.
Since then, he has worked on a patent application for the technology that he hopes eventually to sell to automobile insurance companies to prevent distracted driving. At every step, Grunfeld grappled with numerous questions but knew no one who could answer them.
A UVM friend told him about the new UVM Mentoring Network. Grunfeld searched its database for insurance industry experts who could help him hone his concept. Among them, he found fellow UVM alum Christine Landon.
Landon, class of ’90, worked for years as an actuary for the insurance industry and more recently as an insurance consultant. An entrepreneur with a patent for a hair product she invented, she more recently has delved into crowdfunding with an interest in technology and investment.
Landon not only provided insurance insights but also an enthusiasm for his vision, Grunfeld said. “She was one of the first people I talked to about my idea,” he said. “She’s very motivational.”
After their initial connection, Landon welcomed Grunfeld to stay in touch with her for future questions. They agreed to meet online via Zoom every week, and Landon joined the board of his company, Plugged In. “I just know how to fit the pieces together,” she said.
Such matchmaking between those with expertise and those who need it is the goal of the UVM Mentoring Network, which launched in October 2018. The network can be accessed by anyone in need of business advice, from UVM students and faculty to entrepreneurs and business owners in the community. To date, most mentors are experienced UVM alumni like Landon, but community members can also sign up.
Mentees and mentors can join by filling out a form on the Mentoring Network's website. Mentors can link their LinkedIn profiles, rather than spend time listing their accomplishments and specialties.
Whether it results in a one-time assist or a longterm relationship, the network aims to help budding businesses as they grow, said Richard Galbraith, UVM’s vice president for research.
“It’s basically a sort of dating service for mentors and mentees,” Galbraith said.
Helping Vermont's start-ups grow
Vermont boasts a high number of startups per capita but has less success getting those ventures to scale up into full-fledged companies with active workforces, Galbraith said. Novice owners have told him that they could use advice on setting up payroll, filing taxes, banking, and promoting and marketing their products.
“You need to do everything when you know very little,” Galbraith said. “You’re learning every day. You’re working 20 hours a day to try to make things happen. New things are being thrown at you all the time. You may not have run a business ever in your life. And now you have to think of all the things that businessmen think of every day, have experience with.”
The Vermont economy depends on new businesses starting up, scaling up and becoming successful, Galbraith said. UVM, as a major academic and land-grant institution, should play a role in encouraging that to happen, he said.
“Our mission is to work with and aid and abet the faculty so that their creativity can be translated for the benefit of the people of Vermont,” Galbraith said. “If we don’t find ways to improve the economy of Vermont, then we’re all going to be in trouble. So it literally is a public good.”
Grunfeld agreed that he and other young entrepreneurs “don’t necessarily have the real-world working experience behind you to make sound business decisions,” he said, adding of the Mentoring Network, “This is a great platform to guide people in the right direction.”
Plugged In’s product combines a mobile app and a smart car phone holder that allow parents to monitor and restrict their child’s distracted driving behavior in real time. Grunfeld came up with the product idea as a Community Entrepreneurship major in the Department of Community Development and Applied Economics, where he liked to brainstorm ideas to solve social problems and make cultural change.
“There are countless numbers of lives being lost every year” in accidents involving distracted driving, particularly drivers texting, Grunfeld said. He has partnered with a team of students and faculty in the UVM College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences for help developing his prototype.
The UVM Mentoring Network is designed as a quick and ready resource for those who might need an immediate answer on a tight deadline, perhaps a tax form that’s due and needs to be filled out, Galbraith said. He compares the situation to a broken finger. For such an injury, he wouldn’t call his primary care doctor and wait a month for an appointment. He’d go to the emergency room or an urgent care center, get his finger set and go on his way.
“Often, you need an answer today,” he said. “The analogy is: We need this sort of emergency room for business.”
So far, 56 mentors have signed up on UVM Mentoring Network and 36 mentees have joined. Among those, they have made 14 connections. Galbraith hopes the network will grow as word-of-mouth about successful mentor-mentee pairings spreads.
As a UVM alum, Landon received an email about the Mentoring Network and signed up right away, knowing her business and consulting background could prove useful. The network offers a chance to establish UVM as a world-class institution that breeds creative thinkers and ideas “that serve the greater good of humanity,” she said. “And that, to me, is very important.”