GVSU Students Win in the Top 10 Startups @ European Innovation Academy (EIA)

EIAGabby Hulst, Marissa Hoffman, Shorouq Almallah, Qi’Shaun Coyle, Jenna Grannan

In July 2018, I along with four Seidman College of Business students ventured for a three-week journey to Turin (Torino) Italy to participate in the European Innovation Academy (EIA) accelerator program.  We were joined by more than 350 students from 65 different countries to immerse themselves in entrepreneurship, and to build their entrepreneurial skills, concepts and ideas.  EIA is an “extreme” accelerator that is serving as a catalyst for global entrepreneurship education to help build a bridge and a global network for the next generation of entrepreneurs.  The program took place in Turin which is home to automobile manufacturers FIAT, Lancia and Alfa Romeo, and hosts some of Italy’s best universities, including Polytechnic University of Turin which served as the academic host for the EIA program.  The city has a very beautiful location in the northern part of Italy, nestled at the feet of the Italian Alps.  Its 16th and 18th centuries Baroque, Rococo, and Neo-classical architecture, coupled with its “posh” neighborhoods, stunning Palazzi, wide boulevards and elegant white buildings, have earned the city the title of “Little Paris.”  Turin has also been called the “Detroit of Italy” due to the auto manufacturing presence in the city.  The EIA program took place at the refurbished Lingotto factory, which once used to be one of the most advanced factories in Europe that housed the production and manufacturing for FIAT until the 1980s.  The Lingotto factory was built in the 1920s and was inspired by a visit to the Ford factory in Detroit.  This was very fitting for the Michigander crowd, and it was nice to have a little bit of a Michigan spirit and influence in the heart of Italy.


Our Experience at the European Innovation Academy:

The great thing about the EIA is that it really pushes your comfort zone and propels you to challenge yourself to learn, try, do, fail and eventually succeed. The program offers high quality, rigorous curriculum that was developed by faculty at Berkeley University, and industry experts from Silicon Valley.  The curriculum was structured over the course of 3 weeks, 5 days a week, with daily class meetings from 9 am to 8 pm.  The lessons and the exercises follow the EIA playbook, which starts from the ideation process, the value proposition, customer validation, prototyping, and then culminates with funding and the investor pitch.  The program was intense and required a lot of hard work and dedication.  Every day was organized as follows: lessons and lectures by industry experts, founders and entrepreneurs in the morning; lunch which occasionally was accompanied by a couple of scopes of Gelato; team work and exercises relative to the morning lesson; mentor meetings late in the afternoon, followed by additional team work for the remainder of the day.  At the end of the day, the teams had specific deliverables and tasks to turn in that ranged from customer interviews, financial sheets, marketing plans, to functional prototypes and MVPs.  This was a necessary and required part of the program to help the students stay focused and accountable, as well as help the mentors and faculty assess the progress of the teams.

One of the unique aspects of EIA is the cultural diversity and the opportunity to work and learn from people from all over the world, and not just students, but mentors, coaches, speakers, and faculty.  There were moments of challenges, misunderstandings, and the occasional language barrier.  However, these experiences helped the students grow individually and professionally, as well as learn how to manage conflicts and build effective teams.  Overall, the cultural diversity and the opportunity to tap into a global network of new friends, mentors, and resources was the highlight for all of us.  It was very enriching and eye opening for everyone, and pushed us to be more open minded, to learn from each other, as well as leverage different skills, expertise, backgrounds and networks!  Having a well rounded team is a requirement of the program.  Every team had organizational hierarchy such as a CEO, a CMO, etc., who all work together to create their startup.  For students with a startup idea, they had to pitch their idea on the first day and create a heterogeneous team made of five people that includes software developers, business and marketing people, UX designers, and scientist.  The program not only celebrates cultural diversity, but also promotes and fosters cross-disciplinary collaboration to create well rounded teams and startups that resemble the real world.

The students had ample opportunities to experience and observe the Italian culture, values, and norms.  Food, family, and friends are a central part of Italian culture, and all meals and activities revolved around that.  I, along with the students, learned to like and appreciate the occasional 2-3 hour dinners where you hid away your cell phone, did not rush food or conversations, and learned to savor the food and appreciate being in the moment with friends and colleagues. And speaking of food, we also quickly realized the value of learning a few Italian words to ensure we got what we wanted.  After ordering a “Latte”, not knowing it means milk in Italian, and instead ended up getting a big glass of hot milk, we all quickly brushed up on our Italian to make sure we got our much needed fix of coffee and caffeine the next time!

Days blurred together as lectures merged into mentoring sessions and then into teamwork time, which included many pivots, pitch sessions, building MVPs, and everything in between.  Before we knew it, it was the last day and the top 10 teams were on stage getting ready to pitch in front of venture capitalists and investors from both Europe and Silicon Valley.  Getting to the top 10 was no easy feat.  There was a very intense and competitive process to get to this point.  Teams were required to have 450 points based on their participation, reading, completing course works, tasks and assignments.  These points were required to enter the Product Sprint, a hackathon, that was held during the second week of the program.  The hackathon, in turn, was a requirement to get to the Pitching Carousel round.  Inside the Pitching Carousels, investors picked the top 10 teams (out of 80 teams representing over 350 students) to move to the final round.  All the hard work paid off, and I was thrilled and proud to have two teams, represented by 3 GVSU students, pitch in the final round. The two winning teams that have GVSU students were:

While winning at the final competition is an exciting outcome, I don’t want it to diminish the value of the entire learning experience.  Gabby Hulst, an Entrepreneurship major at Seidman, was the only GVSU student who had her own startup idea, and hit the ground running on day one to build her team and concept. Before joining the program, Gabby’s idea was to connect women online through their closets to exchange gently used clothes.   The idea never took off, and she was fearful of failure, and did not know where to begin.  After three weeks at EIA, Gabby learned an important lesson of not falling in love with the solution, but the problem she was trying to solve.  At the end of the three weeks, and after many challenges and pivots, Gabby walked away with a fully developed business model, a marketing plan, a network of innovators, and a viable product that she can start back home.  Gabby’s clothes exchange idea turned into Get the Fit, an online platform for the resale fashion and clothing industry.  Gabby captured this sentiment of growth mentality by saying: “I loved EIA because I was able to get away from the normalcy of the world for 3 weeks, and come to meet people from around the world, who will all change the world. The ideas inspired me, and challenged me to think bigger, and to not be afraid to take risks.” The EIA offers the tools, structure, the creative collaborative space, and the global network to help students grow not only as entrepreneurs but also as global citizens!  International study abroad is a life changing experience, and programs like EIA provide this kind of experience that will define you for years to come.

Until next time, Ciao!

Shorouq Almallah, Director
Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation
Seidman College of Business-Grand Valley State University

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