How the entrepreneurial spirit thrives at Georgetown
Gabrielle Barone, October 12, 2023
Through special programs, mentorships, and even pitch competitions, Georgetown encourages undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni to follow their entrepreneurial dreams.
“Entrepreneurs come from everywhere,” says Jeff Reid, founding director of Georgetown Entrepreneurship and professor of the practice at the McDonough School of Business. “It starts with a willingness to try to solve a problem and make a difference.”
For Shavini Fernando (G’18), making a difference for others began by solving a problem of her own. Fernando was misdiagnosed with asthma at age two. Due to an undiagnosed hole in the heart, at age 33 she was found to have Eisenmenger Syndrome, a circulation condition caused by a hole between the left and right ventricles that pump blood, and severe pulmonary hypertension, a type of high blood pressure that thickens muscle on the blood vessel walls.
In 2015, along with her Eisenmenger’s diagnosis, Fernando was told she had two years to live. Hearing that number inspired her to take matters into her own hands. While studying at Georgetown, she invented a wearable oxygen saturation monitor that is only the size of an earring. The device aims to reduce vulnerability to hypoxia, where there are low levels of oxygen in body tissue; silent hypoxia, the type Fernando has, doesn’t alert the patient via shortened breathing, so it is difficult to track.
Fernando’s invention, which monitors oxygen levels while doubling as an emergency alert system, is now the basis of her company OxiWear. Along the way, her visionary effort—which has helped extend her life well beyond her initial prognosis—was supported through the growing entrepreneurship opportunities offered at Georgetown.
Building solutions at the Maker Hub
After her diagnosis, Fernando was unable to fly home to Sri Lanka due to her oxygen levels. She needed a permanent U.S. visa to start her life over—and she needed to be close enough to travel to Johns Hopkins, where her medical care was centered. A friend recommended the interdisciplinary Communication, Culture, and Technology master’s program at Georgetown so she could study across various fields.
The hills and steps on campus put her at risk for cardiac arrest. Wishing to live independently despite her health complications, Fernando got a FitBit to monitor her heart rate. Her clinician explained that what she actually needed was a reliable oxygen monitor. When she couldn’t find a device that fit her needs, she decided to try to create something herself.
“What’s the point in crying my eyes out? I’d rather be fixing the problem,” says Fernando. The seed of the idea that became OxiWear was planted.
Fernando asked her technology and prototype design professor, Evan Barba, to supervise an independent study. Using Youtube videos and the Maker Hub—Georgetown University Library’s invention space that offers free use of tools like 3D printers, a laser cutter, and bookbinding equipment—Fernando conducted research, did experiments, and got feedback, eventually creating a working prototype that uses the ear to track oxygen levels.
“I literally burned about $1,500 worth of sensors to figure out how to solder them. They are so tiny!” Fernando says. “My creation took three months. And then, at my next appointment, I told my doctor I did it.”
Fernando’s doctor noted that millions of people could benefit from her work and encouraged her to commercialize the prototype. Fernando recalls that while talking about it with Don Undeen, the previous Maker Space manager, he suddenly started typing away on his computer.
“Later on, I realized he was nominating me for Bark Tank,” Fernando says, referring to Georgetown’s business pitch competition inspired by the television show Shark Tank. OxiWear went on to win Bark Tank in 2018 and has been growing ever since. Earlier this year OxiWear won an Alumni Pitch Competition sponsored by the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Alliance during John Carroll Weekend in San Francisco.
Pitching ideas for prizes
Fernando’s OxiWear company is just one of the success stories from Georgetown Entrepreneurship, a series of educational and extracurricular programs founded in 2009 in the McDonough School of Business to encourage all Georgetown students and alumni as they explore creative solutions for large-scale global problems.
Bark Tank, an annual Georgetown Entrepreneurship event, offers awards through the Leonsis Family Entrepreneurship Prize. The prize is supported by Ted Leonsis (C’77, Parent’14, ’15), his wife, Lynn; his son, Zach (MBA’15); and his daughter, Elle (C’14). Leonsis is a longtime entrepreneur and investor, as well as founder, majority owner, chairman, and chief executive officer of Monumental Sports & Entertainment. Previous winners of Bark Tank include baby gear rental company Joylet (2021), cybersecurity firm Adlumin (2017), and food business MasPanadas (2019). Each year, eight Bark Tank competitors split $150,000 in award money.
The Georgetown Entrepreneurship Alliance (GEA), a Georgetown University Alumni Association-run group to support entrepreneurship, runs the live GEA Alumni Pitch Competition. Prizes are funded through investors in the Georgetown Angel Investment Network (GAIN).
In addition to Bark Tank and the GEA Alumni Pitch Competition, Georgetown Entrepreneurship offers a Rocket Pitch competition where students can win up to $1,500 in prize money with a concise, two-minute business pitch.
Finally, there’s the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Challenge, the largest, most complex pitch event of the year, with winning teams moving through one of 10 preliminary rounds. The 2022 Challenge featured 89 competitors across eight Georgetown schools, including the School of Continuing Studies and the School of Foreign Service.
Reid knows that not every student who pitches an idea will launch that company, and that’s okay. “A lot of the work we do is planting seeds,” says Reid, “and you never know how long it takes for those seeds to sprout. But over time, they do. To have students and former students now running successful companies is really rewarding.”
Since its inaugural competition in 2017, Bark Tank ventures have raised more than $220 million and created more than 730 jobs.
In the classroom and beyond
The McDonough School of Business offers a variety of undergraduate courses for the aspiring entrepreneur, including Social Entrepreneurship and Global Innovation Strategy, as well as an entrepreneurship minor.
“Entrepreneurship is extremely important, in academics and the world,” says Reid. “It teaches us some of the skills that are absolutely necessary to live, like how to deal with change, disruption, ambiguity, risk, and failure.”
The school supports such unique opportunities as the Georgetown Venture Fellows program, which includes both MBAs and undergraduates, offering participants a year of experiential learning in venture capital or private equity. Another resource is the Entrepreneurs in Residence mentorship program, which gives students a chance to learn from successful entrepreneurs.
Students can also apply for a Summer Launch Incubator, listen to a Georgetown entrepreneur podcast called “Venture Forward,” and attend a virtual Startup Career Fair. Graduating seniors looking to begin a startup can apply for a Startup Stipend to cover student loan payments for up to two years while they create their projects.
“I’m having so much fun watching the program grow,” says Reid, who previously established the entrepreneurship center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I’m proud of Georgetown’s new programs, but I feel like we’re still just scratching the surface. I can’t wait to partner with more student organizations, more academic divisions, and more and more of our alumni.”
“Entrepreneurship isn’t the solution to every problem, but it can be part of the solution to just about any problem.”—Jeff Reid, Founding Director of the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Initiative
Working with alumni
“Georgetown has some great advantages when it comes to entrepreneurship, from the robust alumni network to the location in DC,” Reid says. He also looks at Georgetown’s Jesuit values such as being people for others as foundational to entrepreneurship and the opportunities it provides.
“I think college students are trying to figure out what they want to do, at Georgetown and in their lives,” he adds. “Our students want to make a difference in the world. And whether they start a company when they graduate or 10 years later, or if they simply use entrepreneurial thinking in any career, our programs teach them how to take advantage of resources to be more successful.” Alumni play a large part in Georgetown’s entrepreneurship environment, from the Georgetown Angel Investment Network to the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Alliance.
“Georgetown’s alumni are more than happy to advise, coach, mentor, invest, and make introductions,” says Reid. “Georgetown entrepreneurs have some really big advantages.”
Alumni also support McDonough’s entrepreneurship work philanthropically. Most recently, Michael Brown (B’94) made a $3.25 million investment in Georgetown Entrepreneurship, establishing the Tamsen and Michael (B’94) Brown Family Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship and Innovation Fund to recruit entrepreneurship expert and business professor Gerry George, as well as creating the Tamsen and Michael Brown Family Current Use Entrepreneurship Fund.
Reid also wants to make sure that alumni know they can take advantage of the entrepreneurship opportunities even well after they’ve graduated. These include pitch competitions, a collaborative workspace called the Venture Lab, and the Startup Accelerator, which offers mentorship and workshops for alumni entrepreneurs early in their startup founding process.
“We make sure those services continue because we don’t want anyone to feel like we just teach and advise them while they’re in school, and then they’re on their own after graduation,” says Reid.
Harnessing the market for good
The Georgetown Entrepreneurial Summit was held in October 2023 to nurture this creative spirit that so many Hoyas share. In addition to a Bark Tank competition, the event included a forum on Entrepreneurship for the Common Good and the GEA Excellence Awards. In March 2023, Georgetown hosted its inaugural Venture in the Capital Summit, exploring the intersection of venture capital, entrepreneurship, and public policy.
Some entrepreneurship events focus on addressing a specific issue, like climate change or COVID-19. In 2021, Georgetown held the Plan-It Earth Ideation event, in which participants worked with mentors to create pitches and plans for addressing campus climate issues. Winning pitches that year included a campus restaurant that rewarded composting efforts and worked with local farms to provide local produce, an insurance app for small farmers who may deal with extreme weather, and a platform that incentivizes sustainable actions.
In August 2020, Georgetown announced a daylong hackathon-style event called the Georgetown Entrepreneurship COVID-19 Design Challenge, aiming to address issues and inequalities worsened by the pandemic, like underserved communities, unemployment, and education.
“Entrepreneurship isn’t the solution to every problem, but it can be part of the solution to just about any problem,” says Reid. “If you can harness market forces to do something really good, and have social impact as part of your mission, then you can make a huge positive difference in the world.”
Fernando has experienced this impact in real time as her company grows. As she and her doctor had hoped, her device has helped prolong her life and it is actively helping others. “Some patients who bought it have emailed me saying, ‘After four years, I’m going to the gym again’ and ‘I took my first flight since I got diagnosed,’” Fernando says. “When I read those emails, I know I am doing the right thing. I can see how my invention has not only helped them live a normal life, but helped them enjoy it.”
Bhriana Smith contributed to this story.