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IU Innovates supports aspiring entrepreneurs in building businesses, driving impact

Apr 26, 2024

Three men talk in a conference room Kerry Ao, center, co-founded Intertwined, an AI-driven financial education software company, while still in high school. Photo by Wendi Chitwood, Indiana University

In the short time since IU Innovates launched in fall 2023, the Indiana University-wide initiative that expands support for students and faculty in the creation and growth of startup ventures has already amassed more than 125 student startup founders and incubated 30 startup teams.

“The promise of IU Innovates is not just a promise; it is a commitment to providing our students and faculty with the tools and resources they need to succeed,” IU President Pamela Whitten said at the launch. “It’s a promise to equip them with knowledge, guidance and support to transform their ideas and research into engines of progress and drivers of economic development. Our goal is clear: to create a more holistic and integrated infrastructure that empowers the entrepreneurial spirit of our students and faculty.”

The students who are part of the IU Innovates pipeline represent a wide range of academic disciplines, experiences and interests, though many share a desire to drive innovation for societal impact.

Supporting innovative students’ entrepreneurial journeys

Izzy Branam of Zionsville, Indiana, a sophomore studying organizational and business psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, is one of the youngest venture-backed CEOs in the nation. Branam started as an entrepreneur at a young age. At 13, he founded Xygen Records, which grew into an international record label for teenage musicians that, at its peak, had over 100 artists under management.

Charlie Edmonds Charlie Edmonds is a Ph.D. student and founder of Pocket Methods, an educational platform for beginner band and orchestra students incorporating Black gospel music. Photo by Wendi Chitwood, Indiana University

Just a few years later, Branam and two other high school seniors launched a software startup, Fia Recruit, to help job seekers find the ideal employer. In 2022, Fia Recruit received $20,000 in funding through an Elevate Nexus pitch competition for central Indiana, as well as a $1.5 million valuation. He is now part of the team working for Relate XR, an IU-affiliated startup that combines psychology with virtual reality technology to treat substance use disorders. He also serves as a community manager at IU Innovates.

IU sociology and computer science student Eli Serrano, who is also a community manager for IU Innovates, is the founder of Airoma, a new social media platform that uses AI to engage users in their mental, physical and digital health. His app shows content specific to a user’s location, encouraging outdoor exploration using augmented reality. The platform limits exposure to negative news and welcomes healthy interactions among users, while also serving as a valuable resource to local businesses, organizations and communities. 

Charlie Edmonds is a Ph.D. student in music education at the Jacobs School of Music and founder of Pocket Methods, an educational platform for beginner band and orchestra students incorporating Black gospel music. As a former middle school band director, Edmonds saw a void in the music curriculum that matched student interests. Through her efforts to enrich student learning, she wrote music for her classroom, developing an online platform to reach more students.

Matt Gacek of St. John, Indiana, recently sold his groundbreaking AI therapy and personal growth app, Theia, to Miri, a San Francisco-Bay-Area-based health and wellness platform driven by AI. Though still a sophomore at the IU Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering, Gacek has joined Miri as a large language models software engineer.

A poster with info about a startup Matt Gacek recently sold his groundbreaking AI therapy and personal growth app, Theia, to Miri, a health and wellness platform driven by AI. Photo by Wendi Chitwood, Indiana University

Earlier this year, Edmonds and Gacek, who are both clients of the Luddy School’s Shoebox incubation program — now called Sparklab — were among five nominees for the Student Entrepreneur of the Year at TechPoint’s annual Mira Awards, which honor the best of tech in Indiana. They’re hoping to follow in the footsteps of last year’s Student Entrepreneur of the Year, Kerry Ao, from Newburgh, Indiana.

Ao, a first-year Kelley Scholar studying finance and international business, co-founded Intertwined, an AI-driven financial education software company, while still in high school. He is one of four IU-affiliated innovators vying for TechPoint’s Rising Entrepreneur award this year.

In a recent Q&A, Ao said IU Innovates has quickly become his “go-to” spot on the IU Bloomington campus.

“The coworking space has provided a spot for me to work alongside like-minded students, and I love connecting with entrepreneurs building the next big thing,” he said.

Expanding IU’s entrepreneurial ecosystem

Julie Heath is the inaugural executive director of IU Innovates. A leader in launching innovative public-private initiatives and social impact organizations, she recently served as vice president of entrepreneurial ecosystems for the Indiana Economic Development Corp. There she led the creation of Indiana’s first strategy to support entrepreneurs and strengthen the culture of innovation across the state.

“An entrepreneurship ecosystem is only as strong as the connections between its people and resources,” Heath said. “Through this new initiative, we aim to integrate IU’s entrepreneurial support and increase the number of IU entrepreneurs.”

In just a few short months, IU Innovates has already expanded the entrepreneurial landscape at the university by amplifying and leveraging successful IU entrepreneurship programs and pitch competitions; encouraging community-building and information-sharing among IU entrepreneurs by hosting networking events such as coffees, lunches and peer group sessions; and spotlighting the stories of IU’s successful startup founders.

Julie Heath Julie Heath, the inaugural executive director of IU Innovates, is a leader in launching innovative public-private initiatives and social impact organizations. Photo by Wendi Chitwood, Indiana University

The initiative is also rallying the experts, resources and partnerships to increase entrepreneurial activities at IU. To this end, IU Innovates has joined forces with the Shoemaker Innovation Center in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering to promote and expand the Sparklab incubation program, as well as the Shoemaker Scholars and Startup IU, all of which have been made possible through a generous gift from John and Donna Shoemaker.

IU Innovates is also complementing and magnifying other prominent programs at IU, including the Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Kelley School, which, in 2023, was recognized by the U.S. Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship with the prestigious Model Entrepreneurship Program Award. The program is led by Donald F. Kuratko, the Jack M. Gill Distinguished Chair and professor of entrepreneurship, who received the association’s highest individual honor, the Max S. Wortman/USASBE Lifetime Achievement Award for Entrepreneurship, in 2022.

IU Innovates is also leveraging the Elmore Entrepreneurship Law Clinic, which is jointly sponsored by the Kelley School of Business and Maurer School of Law; the Office of Entrepreneurship and Career Development at the world-renowned Jacobs School of Music; the IU Innovation and Commercialization Office, which works with IU’s entrepreneurial community to take IU innovations to market; and IU Ventures, which invests in and supports IU-affiliated early-stage companies.

In partnership with a number of IU schools and programs, IU Ventures also directs the IU Ventures Fellows, an experiential program that immerses students in the venture capital industry through National Venture Capital Association curriculum, real-time projects, deal exposure and internships.

Primed to make a profound impact

For all of the praise it has generated, IU’s commitment to world-class entrepreneurial education is helping to generate an impact that extends far beyond the walls of the university.

A 2024 Forbes analysis ranked Indiana as the second-best state to start a business. Startup Genome, a world-leading policy advisory and research organization, also recently ranked Indiana as a Global Top 40 Emerging Ecosystem in entrepreneurship, citing the state’s local connectedness as one of its greatest advantages.

In 2025, Indiana will host the Global Entrepreneurship Congress, the preeminent entrepreneurship event that brings together thousands of entrepreneurs, policymakers, investors, and startup ecosystem builders from around the world. Indianapolis will be the second U.S. location to host the annual convention since its inaugural event in 2009.  

With the launch of the new IU Innovates initiatives, IU hopes to further catalyze the nation’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystem and elevate Indiana’s national and global reputation scale as one of the best places for startup founders to build successful businesses.

It will do so with a central focus on emerging entrepreneurs, whom Heath describes as a “strength hidden in plain sight.”

“Our vision is to establish IU as globally recognized powerhouse for innovation and entrepreneurship by igniting the entrepreneurial potential of IU students and faculty,” Heath said. “We also want to become a university where entrepreneurship is not just encouraged, but actively supported. This is vital because the entrepreneurial mindset is critical in a fast-changing economy.

“The Indiana University entrepreneurship community will show students how to see problems as opportunities and ensure that they have the entrepreneurial skill set and supports to launch new businesses, commercialize high-potential innovation, and positively impact our communities and our society for generations to come.”


University Communications and Marketing

Ryan Piurek

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