DC: What is your name, major, and graduation year? Xu: Brin Xu, Sociology, 2022
DC: Which Dingman Center programs have you been involved with? Xu: I have been involved in Pitch Dingman competition, Terp Startup Accelerator, Terp Startup Fellows programs.
DC: In two to three sentences, how would you describe your startup? Xu: Fancy & Spicy is a digital culinary platform allowing anyone in the world to share authentic food experiences. We primarily offer online cooking classes, and plan to become a social platform for food lovers.
DC: Now that you’ve won the Pitch Dingman Competition ‘21, what’s next for your company? Xu: Since we won the Pitch Dingman Competition, we have been working on our scaling initiatives with support from the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship. We are moving our company toward the path of sustainability.
DC: What updates or significant accomplishments can you share with us about your company from the last six months? Xu: In the last six months, we redesigned our website to build the foundation for future development, expanded products lines, built a team of 4 top chefs, continued producing attractive social media contents, and honed our value proposition. These efforts have been very rewarding. For example, we have acquired 157 new customers and received revenue about $10,000 so far.
DC: Can you describe your typical day as a business owner? Xu: My typical day as a business owner is busy and fun. I usually read industry news and emails during my breakfast to catch up information. In the morning, I check our class bookings, billings, and cash flow to make sure things are on track. In the afternoon, I meet up with my customers, chefs, website developer and other stakeholders. Evening is a good time to reflect, and plan work for the next day.
DC: As a business owner, how do you define success? Xu: As a business owner, I think success is running a profitable company that contributes to social goods. Knowing that I am doing is helping myself and others toward a better and heartier life means a lot to me.
DC: If you could give advice to any aspiring entrepreneurs, what would it be? Xu: I would advise them to find a supportive community. I have been very lucky to have the Center’s support through the way, otherwise Fancy & Spicy would not be here today. I encourage first-time founders reach out to communities and move forward.
To learn more about Fancy & Spicy, please visit the website here.
DC: What’s your names, majors, minors, and graduation years? Andhavarapu: My name is Sanketh Andhavarapu (May 2023) and I’m majoring in Health Decision Sciences and Neurobiology with a minor in Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Shah: My name is Veeraj Shah (May 2021) and I graduated from the University of Maryland with degrees in Health Policy & Technology and Neurobiology. I’m now pursuing a PhD in Public Health at the University of Cambridge in the UK.
DC: Which Dingman Center programs have you been involved with? Andhavarapu: With Vitalize, we completed the Terp Startup Accelerator in 2020. We also frequently participate in Dingman Fridays to receive coaching. I also participated in the Pitch Dingman Competition earlier this year with my nonprofit STEPS, where we were awarded 2nd place in the Main Street Track.
DC: In two to three sentences, how would you describe your startup? Shah: Vitalize is a digital wellness platform tailored to healthcare providers to improve their well-being and reduce burnout. We offer clinician-focused cognitive behavioral therapy through a mobile app, and robust analytics and actionable insights on staff well-being trends and app engagement for hospital leadership.
DC: At what point did you know you wanted to create your own startup? Andhavarapu: In high school, I had the opportunity to be the Chief Human Resources Officer of a nonprofit organization. I learned that I really enjoyed leading and inspiring teams to collectively achieve social impact. This experience directly motivated me to found STEPS, a revenue-generating education nonprofit. In this role, I realized how important it was for me to take on an irreplaceable role in anything that I put time and effort into. I liked knowing that as a founder, there is no one more knowledgeable about your idea and innovation than yourself, and that you’re leaving a unique footprint on the world. I didn’t find this same sense of personal fulfillment when looking at the different clubs I could join when I first came to UMD. This is why, when I had the idea for Vitalize, I knew I had to take action and it was a no-brainer that I wanted to invest my time and effort into making it successful.
Shah: Early in my time at UMD, I dove into the field of public health. My sophomore year, I worked with the Chief Administrator of Health & Human Services for Prince George’s County as a health policy intern, and began to see the world of local public health in action. But what I saw was a landscape full of opportunities for innovation, and how policy alone would not be able to tackle some of the most pressing health disparities and equity gaps present right in my backyard. That summer, I worked as a business analyst intern at IBM Watson Health, spearheading health technology efforts that would improve the state-level innovation capacity of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. I quickly saw how simply innovations had the opportunity to improve the quality of healthcare delivery and prevent the burden of disease.
From that summer on, I knew that my interests lied as a health technology entrepreneur, where I was able to connect my interests in technology to solve critical problems in healthcare and public health. As a founder, I also soon realized how exciting it was to begin building a team and to truly become a subject matter expert on a topic you care about. Vitalize directly reflects these passions – leveraging technology to improve the wellbeing of healthcare providers, and building an incredible team of students committed to this mission.
DC: What or who is your biggest influence for your startup? Andhavarapu: Both of us have had mentors and family members suffer from burnout as healthcare providers. We saw how people who committed their professional life to helping others were constantly emotionally exhausted, had poor wellbeing, and in some cases wanted to leave healthcare completely. As aspiring healthcare providers and entrepreneurs, we wanted to ensure that healthcare providers had all the resources necessary to achieve the best wellbeing. We see Vitalize as the first step towards creating lasting cultural transformation surrounding wellness and stigma in healthcare.
DC: How have the effects of the pandemic changed your company’s focus or ideas? Shah: The idea for Vitalize was actually born prior to the pandemic. Burnout among healthcare providers is a decades-long issue. The onset of the pandemic exacerbated the problem and also highlighted the dire need for new solutions, motivating us to pursue Vitalize as a company. The added free time that came with online classes and being in quarantine also allowed us to put more time into Vitalize.
DC: What updates or significant accomplishments can you share with us about your company from the last six months? Andhavarapu: The last 6 months have been very exciting for Vitalize. We are just about finished the development of our product, which we will be launching through a public beta with over 100 clinicians in the next couple weeks. We also secured a hospital pilot with Midland Memorial Hospital in Texas, which we will be conducting as a research study in November to evaluate the efficacy of our product and collect data. Finally, we’ve also garnered interest from two hospital interests in larger scale pilots (1000+ providers), which we’re hoping to execute in early 2022.
DC: If you could give advice to any aspiring entrepreneurs, what would it be? Shah: Don’t underestimate the importance of customer discovery. If you have an idea that you are looking to pursue, it is important to conduct several unbiased interviews with all the potential stakeholders (customers, payers, partners, etc). Customer discovery is a great way to validate assumptions and de-risk your startup before investing too much money and time into a potentially flawed concept. It’s also important that you build a strong team with diverse skill sets who are all passionate about the problem being solved and are willing to commit long hours to see the company come to fruition.
For more information about Vitalize, please visit the website here.
Galen Stetsyuk and Mike Sorokin met freshman year as undergraduate students at the University of Maryland, College Park, and soon after co-founded MPLEX in December 2015. Both avid gamers frustrated by the subpar options available within the Virtual Reality Industry, Stetsyuk intended to form “a virtual reality video game company creating a game worth getting a VR headset for.” MPLEX’s goal was to create a technology to tackle the current challenges associated with VR games and experiences, including but not limited to simulation sickness.
Stetsyuk and Sorokin were highly involved with the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship while they attended the University of Maryland. MPLEX evolved from its initial idea through various Dingman Center programs including Terp Startup Accelerator, Dingman Fridays, and Pitch Dingman Competition. Although the MPLEX team didn’t place at the 2017 competition they entered, they remain grateful for the support and connections made along the way, which helped contribute to the funding they received later on.
Stetsyuk and Sorokin now work full-time on building their company, along with 10 other people they have added to their team, almost all of whom are former UMD students. This growth has been made possible by the second funding round the company just closed, amounting to a total investment of $1.2 million to date. While the co-founders are no longer students themselves, the team hasn’t strayed far from the University of Maryland, as they currently operate out of an incubator space within Mtech. MPLEX also tries to get UMD students involved with their company whenever possible. The company is currently planning an in-person esports tournament to take place on October 16th at the Antonov Auditorium on the University of Maryland, College Park campus. The event will be free for all students to attend and will feature live gaming and other interactive experiences for students to trial.
MPLEX’s main focus lately has been on launching Core Disruption, the company’s debut VR game, which uses simulation sickness reduction technology. The game is a vehicular-based competitive multiplayer experience that has high-fidelity graphics and sound quality, deep player progression, customization, and offers a wide variety of options for different playstyles. Those anxious to purchase the game will have to be patient, as Stetsyuk estimates a rollout through digital distribution by the end of the year, or early 2022. In the meantime, interested students should mark their calendars now for MPLEX’s October 16th esports tournament for a sneak peak.
Things are slowing down at the Smith School. Students are taking their last finals, and we’re finishing up work to prepare for a blissful holiday season ahead. So grab a cup of cocoa and take a trip with us down memory lane as we recap a fantastic fall semester of events, programs and more at the Dingman Center!
A Rise in the Rankings
University of Maryland rose in the Princeton Review and Entrepreneur magazine’s rankings to #7 in undergraduate programming, and #3 for public universities. This marks our fifth consecutive year in the top 10! Read about the rankings here.
The end of the semester is here once again! Student entrepreneurs are buckling down to get through their final exams, group projects and presentations before they’re off for the holidays. As the Dingman Center quiets down while students are studying, we’ve had time to reflect on the events we’ve held throughout the semester. In these past few months, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of energy, engagement and enthusiasm from the community at our events and programs at the Smith School. Take a look at some of our favorite highlights over the past semester!
It’s that time of year. The stream of talented student entrepreneurs we’ve seen come through our doors begins to thin out with the arrival of finals, commencement and (at last!) winter break. But in the quiet of their absence, we can fondly reminisce on the outstanding semester we’ve had at the Dingman Center. In the past couple of months, we’ve seen a record amount of energy and engagement from the community in our programs. Read on for some of our favorite highlights from the semester.
The Dingman Center is pleased to announce the addition of another successful founder, Rashad Moore, to our impressive group of Entrepreneurs-in-Residence. Rashad is excited to become more integrated into the Dingman community and to do what he enjoys most of all—helping young entrepreneurs. He started attending Dingman Fridays a few years ago and loved getting access to smart people with great ideas. He states, “Dingman is doing a lot of great stuff—if I had this in college, I may be further along.”
Rashad began his career in the defense industry in the outskirts of Washington, D.C., working for Northrop Grumman where he saw an unmet need for software engineers within the defense industry. After learning how to win government contracts while working for Clear Solutions, Rashad quickly realized it didn’t matter what company got the government bid, they would still come to him for software engineering.