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OwlSpark – A Rice University Accelerator Started By Students, For Students

OwlSpark – A Rice University Accelerator Started By Students, For Students

What began as the idea of three Rice University students has sparked into an accelerator program in its second year.

In 2013, then-Rice undergraduates Veronica Saron, Vivas Kumar, and Akash Morrison, as well as then-Rice MBA student Darren Clifford, founded OwlSpark to create a place for students who had a desire to be entrepreneurial and create start up companies to learn how to accomplish those goals, Managing Director of OwlSpark Kerri Smith said.

“Of those four students, two at the time were juniors, one was a senior, and then of course one was graduating from business school,” Smith said. “[Clifford] agreed to delay his start date with his company, with McKinsey, so that he could be the first managing director of OwlSpark. He spent his summer last year volunteering his time, laying a groundwork for the program.”


Kerri Smith, OwlSpark’s Managing Director, at Rice Unversity’s Willy’s Pub.

Kumar and Saron were not only helpful in last year’s program, but they continued their involvement with OwlSpark through this past year, as seniors.

“[Kumar and Saron] were [also] helpful in last year’s program, and then continued through this past year, their senior year, serving on the leadership team and the board to help transition all of that, to make sure that we had the principles by which the organization was found.”

It was founded by students and it was largely run by students last year, and now, those students have since graduated. the university is still giving OwlSpark support to move forward, and Owlspark has put some structure around the program.

“In terms of Rice University staff – now [OwlSpark] is actually run by a board of directors and myself, and I have a team of other highly capable and qualified people helping to run [OwlSpark] this year,” Smith said.

OwlSpark’s goal is to help students put all the fundamentals they need around that startup to put them in a position to where they become an attractive entity with customer validation.

“One of the primary goals we [are trying] to accomplish this year is to help each of our teams receive some customer validation,” Smith said.

In fact, the program has three components. The first part is a curriculum based on the Lean Canvas philosophy of Startups, where the OwlSpark students are in a teaching environment. The next six weeks are spent developing the business fundamentals that teams need to know, such as marketing and legal considerations. The last three weeks of the program tie all of those elements together, as the class prepares for the Bayou Startup Showcase, in conjunction with UH’s Red Labs.

This year, OwlSpark moved its working space from Rice’s Bioscience Research Collaborative to Willy’s Pub, an on-campus, student-run business.

“I wasn’t a part of last year’s program, so it would be hard for me to compare the two [locations],” Smith said. “Last year they had tenth floor views of the Medical Center, Reckling Park, and on a clear day you could see the Galleria. This year we have views of neon signs, empty kegs, and exposed plumbing, so we’re going more for a hipster-grunge kind of look, but I think we’ve embraced it, we’ve made it our own, and we’re having some fun with it. ”

Ultimately, OwlSpark is a place for the campus’s budding entrepreneurs to practice their craft.

“There are places on campus for ball players to practice, musicians to practice, theater majors to practice,” Smith said. “There’s really not a place for entrepreneurs to practice. Owlspark is a safe place for them to come do that and continue honing their craft. We’re trying to create a playing field.”

Smith wanted to recognize Rice University Provost George L. McLendon, Rice University, the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership, the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, the George R. Brown School of Engineering, the Jones Graduate School of Business, the OwlSpark mentor base, and generous donors Rod Johnson, Allen Gilmer, and John Spencer.