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Inside the Columbia Startup Lab

14 Mins read

A startup can be a lonely and risky undertaking. To manage the risk—and the loneliness, many early-stage entrepreneurs, seek the company of others, which can lead to friendships, partnerships, and investment opportunities.

There are numerous places across the country offering these types of opportunities—here’s a look at one particularly successful program.

The Columbia Startup Lab

The Columbia Startup Lab (CSL) is a co-working facility at WeWork Soho West that provides subsidized space, programming, and community for 71 Columbia University alumni entrepreneurs to house and nurture their fledgling ventures. Since it opened eight years ago, CSL has helped launch 200 companies in a wide range of industries—fintech, fashion, food, and beyond. In total, these early-stage companies have raised more than $55M in venture funding. Four startups born at the Lab have seen exits/acquisitions for a total deal size of $100M.

CSL is the result of a partnership between the deans of Columbia College and the Schools of Business, Engineering, Law, and International and Public Affairs. CSL is open to recent alumni from across the University (including Barnard and Teachers College) who are committed to working on their venture full-time.

Here founders’ efforts to build successful ventures are led by a world-class team of mentors such as entrepreneur Bill O’Farrell (most recently of Body Labs, acquired by Amazon), Blue Sky Media founder Leslie Gittess, and entrepreneur and angel investor Dave Lerner, Director of Columbia Entrepreneurship, who are committed to Columbia’s mission to prepare students for a life of impact.

Lab Life

Here’s some insight into life in the Columbia Startup Lab.

Nat Kelner, Director of the Columbia Startup Lab

Why was the Lab started?

The Lab was created in 2014 to give a headquarters to the burgeoning entrepreneurship scene at Columbia. Every year, the Lab accepts a cohort of 71 Columbia alumni from across Columbia’s undergraduate and graduate schools, provides subsidized space, offers high-touch programming, and fosters community to help these entrepreneurs launch.

What traits do you look for in entrepreneurs who apply to be part of the Lab?

We’re looking for entrepreneurs who are dedicating themselves to growing their businesses full time, and while they are an early-stage company, have moved beyond the idea phase and are already incorporated as a company. We’re also looking for people who are go-getters and are dedicated to helping us build a strong entrepreneurship community at the Lab and beyond. Finally, it’s important for us to have a cohort with diverse backgrounds and expertise who can learn from each other. After all, an engineer, a business grad, and a policy grad can work on a better idea together than any one of them could on their own.

Are there common traits you’ve noticed over the last five years in those that have been most successful?

The most successful entrepreneurs tend to be those who, early on, have a great mix of focus and drive but openness to new ideas and feedback. Being open helps them adapt to opportunities as they come, and the focus keeps them from getting distracted from their core mission.

Any common traits for those who weren’t successful?

It’s really the inverse of my previous answer. Some founders can get caught up in the trappings of being a founder, like going to conferences, meetups, getting business cards, but they neglect to do the core stuff: talk to customers, iterate on products and make sales.

What kinds of support/services does the Lab offer?

We do an onboarding interview with everyone who comes into the Lab, and from there, we can tweak the programming to make sure we’re meeting people where they are. We have workshops on the basics of running a business, such as accounting, legal, HR, and digital marketing; guest speakers and AMAs with vanguards of the venture capital and the NYC startup scene; and regular opportunities for feedback, such as pitching practice, Product Jams, and problem-solving sessions. The Lab members also have ongoing access to our Mentors in Residence.

The Lab also supports its members through community-building and by offering subsidized workspace with furnishings (assigned desk & a chair), Wi-Fi, printing, meeting spaces, phone booths, water/coffee, beer, cleaning/maintenance, and access to common facilities across the global WeWork network.

Anything you’d like to add?

Yes. The Lab is administered by Columbia Entrepreneurship, but it wouldn’t work without the support of and collaboration with Columbia Business School, Columbia Engineering, Columbia College, SIPA, and Columbia Law School.

Donnel Baird, founder BlocPower, uses data, thermodynamic models, structured finance, IoT, and edge computing to make city buildings greener, brighter and healthier.

Describe the experience of being in the Lab:

Being part of the Lab was a privilege and critical in helping us launch on our mission to develop greener, healthier, smarter buildings in low-income communities.

How did being part of the Lab help you?

I had no money and couldn’t afford desk space, so it was cheap—but more importantly, it provided a community of folks from Columbia who were in the same stage of business as I was.

It was challenging for many of us to be in debt [from school] and convince [our] families and spouses that starting a business now was a good thing to do. Being able to have those intimate conversations about real challenges and risks was really important.

The peer-to-peer mentoring was a significant benefit as well. For example, a fellow Lab member was working on selling a fashion line. From our conversations, I realized there were many parallels between selling a fashion line and selling green energy. It made me think about how green energy can similarly be a status symbol.

What was the best part of being part of the Lab?

The community, but I also liked how it kept me connected to Columbia Business School and Columbia at large instead of jumping in the deep end on my own. I continued to have access to curriculum, material, professors, and new students. I had lots of dumb questions starting out about contracts or accounting, and just being able to ask that of the school was really important.

Do you think you’d be as successful as you are if you hadn’t been part of the Lab?

The connections through and affiliation with Columbia as an early business were important for BlocPower. The Lab submitted a letter of support for us to the U.S. Department of Energy, which helped get us a first contract—that letter showed that yes, we’re a small company, but we have the university’s backing. Being a part of the Lab also gave me early credibility with customers and potential early-stage VC investors.

How would you rate the co-working experience? Were there any concerns?

I didn’t have concerns – it was the right move for me at the time, and I’m glad I got that right.

Samantha Brody, cofounder, Ella & Oak, an online bridal boutique for today’s Plus Size bride.

Describe the experience of being in the Lab:

At the end of the day, what’s amazing about the Columbia Startup Lab is being surrounded by such a powerful support network of entrepreneurs and advisors.

How did being part of the Lab help you?

The network here is amazing, and with a group of 71 entrepreneurs, chances are you’ll find someone in the same industry, or with the same focus, or someone who has the specific expertise you’re looking for.

For example, I connected with another founding team. They happen to be in a similar industry (B2C bridal apparel) and at a similar stage but are not a competitor. Now we meet for lunches to talk about how things are going, what advice we need, and what questions we have.

What was the best part of being part of the Lab?

The best part about the Lab is that it’s small enough that we can get to know [Lab Director and Manager] Nat Kelner and [Lab Assistant Director] Daniella Raposo. They can adapt programming to our needs, but it’s big enough that there’s a diversity of people in different industries and backgrounds that you can learn from.

For example, after my onboarding interview with Daniella, where she listened to my suggestions on what would work for me as a founder, she connected me with three Lab alumni who could speak to my specific needs and started adding to the digital marketing programming on the Lab calendar.

Attending office hours with Nat was hugely valuable since I could get the perspective of someone who had been through startups and understands startup strategy, how to think about pivots, and planning the 30-60-90 for our company, but can also answer those questions in a safe space. By that, I mean I feel comfortable sharing, not just the highs but also the lows, and can be open about some of our challenges and fears so that we can get productive feedback

Also, as an early-stage entrepreneur with a remote co-founder, navigating this new experience, being your own boss, and managing your own time is extremely isolating. Being surrounded by people going through the same emotional and practical challenges is a huge help.

Do you think you’d be as successful as you are if you hadn’t been part of the Lab?

No, I wouldn’t be. There are many networks you can plug into in New York City, and I considered other spaces, but this is by far the best. The fact is there’s a natural connection [having all graduated from Columbia and being entrepreneurs] that makes it easier to get to know and relate to people—it’s human nature—and it makes connections easier to facilitate in the beginning and easier to maintain in the long term.

This is also a space that allows you to have a set desk and a routine. I find this extremely motivating since it helps me create structure and stability as an entrepreneur. Knowing I will see the same people every day and that there’s a designated physical space for my work, so I don’t have to worry about where I’ll be in the morning helps keep me sane!

Would you recommend the Lab experience to other startup entrepreneurs?


How would you rate the co-working experience? Were there any concerns?

One of the challenges many other co-working spaces are working through is that you could go through them and not talk to another soul. They’re trying to build communities, but there’s no natural connection, and there’s no selection process, so they’re not bought into the idea of being a cultivated community. But when you’re a freelancer or entrepreneur, you really want to work with people with relevant connections, information, and experiences.

Is there anything you’d want to see added to the Lab experience?

I make industry connections outside the Lab—extensive networks where you can ask to get connected with people doing fashion in New York City. As the Lab goes on year after year and continues to grow its group of past participants, they are working to keep alumni of the program connected. I am excited to one day be part of that growing network and to continue to meet other current and former Columbia entrepreneurs.


Elizabeth Trelstad, cofounder, Beaker, new way to search for your next favorite personal care products, powered by science

Describe the experience of being in the Lab:

Having this space is the difference between sticking with my startup and applying to other jobs.

How did being part of the Lab help you?

I’m a chemist, so I love that I can now have a business class, even if it’s a short version of it. The programming at the Lab is of a higher caliber than what I have experienced previously, and the people who are working with us aren’t necessarily only founders; they’re also mentors and professors. They understand that people will have questions and know how to handle them. They’re not just speaking from bullet points of their entrepreneurial experience; they’re speaking from proven theory and strategy.

It can be difficult to feel like you can really ask questions in other programs that bring in founders or professionals in the city. It feels more like you should be asking questions you already know the answers to to look good in front of everyone in the room.

What was the best part of being part of the Lab?

The best part of being at the Lab so far has been the Product Jam, where Lab members get up and get feedback on their product.

One of my biggest setbacks was that I was building pieces of things and didn’t know what the whole looked like. [Lab manager] Daniella Raposo saw that and told me I should showcase it in the next Project Jam and said, “I don’t care what you have; you’re showing it.” Then it was the date on the calendar, and I didn’t want to abuse the Lab member’s time, so I built what I needed to in two weeks. I was really nervous, but the session went better than I expected. Everyone was supportive of what I had done but also had specific and actual criticism. Doing the Product Jam took away my nerves about putting something out there.

At CSL, the culture is: we get where you’re coming from, we know how hard you’re working, we get what you’re trying to do, and now here’s a specific way you can think of things differently. I’ve been in other situations where there wasn’t that positive attitude, and people were just trashing each other’s work.

Do you think you’d be as successful as you are if you hadn’t been part of the Lab?

Oh, definitely not.

I think of the Lab as being totally instrumental to productivity even though it’s a communal space. Otherwise, it would be me at home with my cat—there’s no focus at coffee shops, and a traditional office is out of my budget.

At the Lab, there’s also comfort in knowing you’re surrounded by people on the same wavelength. We have the shared connection of having graduated from the same school, and we’re all working on startups. And if and when I need help—which is often—it’s usually the person next to me who can help me. I once had a billing problem with a client that I was embarrassed to admit, but another Lab member went through the same thing and we had lunch to discuss how to manage it and both got paid by the end of the week.

I can also get very enthusiastic and optimistic about everything that comes my way. I have this vast network of people throwing things at me, and I can easily lose track, but then I can come here and share it with people who help me keep focus and distinguish whether this new opportunity is actually something I want to do or not.

Would you recommend the Lab experience to other startup entrepreneurs?

I definitely would. Actually, my mom is an entrepreneur who is running up against the same problems I did at other co-working spaces, and I should probably suggest that she apply to the Lab, since she’s also a Columbia alum!

How would you rate the co-working experience? Were there any concerns?

I’ve had some mixed experiences in co-working programs in the past. I found that many entrepreneurs, myself included, outgrew the programming that was offered as our businesses matured. They tried to address this by creating cycles of programming, but then the high touch disappeared. There was also always a lot of pressure to attend every program that was offered.

By comparison, at the Lab, it’s very much on you to take advantage of what’s being offered. I like having the option to participate, and here the motivation is knowing that you’re only shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t because there’s clearly a high level of vetting that goes into what is offered and by whom.

Is there anything you’d want to see added to the Lab experience?

I’ve worked really hard to cultivate a network within my industry—some of which came by accident, some through cold emailing—and keeping up is still important to me. I need to keep those contacts with beauty founders and in beauty tech through regular meetups.


Simon Schwartz, founder, Locasaur, an app built exclusively for mom-and-pops and the regulars who love them. It offers a simple messaging platform to personally and directly engage with customers.

Describe the experience of being in the Lab:

It’s home base—a  space for my business that I take pride in, where people I rely on congregate.

How did being part of the Lab help you?

Columbia does a great job in making a community. Not only as a first-time founder but a first-time founder straight out of college, I didn’t know what I was doing, so it was nice to know that I was in a community of people who also don’t know what they’re doing but are hell-bent on figuring it out.

Now, being a year and a half in, I know what I’m doing, and I can share what I’ve learned with new teams coming into the Lab and help them head off from making the mistakes I’ve made.

Plus, it gives you a caché and a certain professionalism being able to tell people to stop by your office in Soho!


What was the best part of being part of the Lab?

I’m a big believer in that saying: “If you’re the smartest person in the whole room, you’re in the wrong room.” At the Lab, I’ve gotten to spend time with [Mentor in Residence] Dave Lerner and founders who are several steps ahead of me in their entrepreneurship journey. I get to form friendships and learn from these fellow founders just like I now look to help founders in the earlier stages of their startups.

For example, as a non-technical founder, it was really important to me that I be able to converse fluently and speak knowledgeably about how Locasaur was engineered. Some of the older engineering crowd in the lab—Alex Ayache and Steve Delor from Wheeli, Peter Wakahiu Njenga from, Omar Kiyani from Ngineered, and others really helped shorten my technical learning curve early on. I’m sure I avoided some serious pitfalls that other non-technical founders run into simply because I annoyed them with so many questions.

For my part, I’ve shared a fair amount of document templates with younger teams—hiring docs, intern contract templates, that sort of thing.

I’ve also noticed that a lot of first-time founders are reactive. They chase every opportunity and have a hard time saying “no”. Being open-minded to new opportunities is, of course, important but a fair amount of “opportunities” are simply wastes of your most precious resource—time. When I chat with earlier stage founders, I always urge them to be proactive instead: know what the three most important things are to your company at the moment, focus on them, actively seek out how to achieve them quickly, and don’t worry about the rest. [CSL alum] George Liu has a saying that I like and have since stolen a million times:  “Some problems you don’t deserve to be thinking about yet.” Every founder wants to get to “a million.” The ones who do are the ones who focus on getting to one, then 10, then 100,  then a 1,000, etc.

Do you think you’d be as successful as you are if you hadn’t been part of the Lab?

I would definitely be worse off if I weren’t in the Lab. There’s a certain kind of education that goes on here—I didn’t go to business school, I didn’t go to law school, but I’ve learned from my peers and the professionals we have access to. There’s a certain learning-by-osmosis at the Lab that is encouraged here.

Would you recommend the Lab experience to other startup entrepreneurs?

I would, and I have recommended the Columbia Startup Lab to other startup entrepreneurs. There’s a mistake that first-time founders make in thinking that it’s all going to work out. [But] you don’t really know until you actually start all the things that you have to deal with. The more time you spend around other founders, regardless of what they’re working on, you begin to learn more about how to approach things and solve things more efficiently.

How would you rate the co-working experience? Were there any concerns?

A danger of co-working anywhere is becoming comfortable and complacent. You really get along with someone, so you keep chatting instead of working on your own thing. Co-working also has the potential for a lot of distraction, so there’s a level of self-discipline that needs to exist. As an entrepreneur, you have to be really focused on the three things that will make or break your business that month.

Is there anything you’d want to see added to the Lab experience?

I find that at the Lab, if you need something beyond what’s offered, and you ask for it, you get it. None of this will exist if you don’t go out and get it—you need an aggressively disciplined mindset, and you should ask for what you need to get there.

But you can’t rely on any co-working space alone—don’t forget that every business in the space is working on and needs different things. As great as the programming here is (and it really is a cut above what I’ve seen elsewhere), you still have to go out and find information that is specific to your business.


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