At Hofstra, getting pretty good at this pandemic pivot

Master Claster: Northwell Ventures investment pro Matthew Claster guides entrepreneurs during this week's virtual boot camp, part of Hofstra University's 2020 Healthcare Entrepreneurship Community Challenge.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Still planning an in-person grand finale for October, one of Hofstra University’s most popular entrepreneurship efforts has transitioned – smoothly, if temporarily – to a virtual format.

Hofstra’s Healthcare Entrepreneurship Community Challenge has performed the pandemic pivot, with a full week of online mentorship and study commencing Monday for 31 participating healthcare startups, including four based on Long Island.

Engaging them online is an impressive cross-section of health, law and med-tech professionals from the Island and beyond, representing Northwell Health, Pfizer, the American Medical Association and a bevy of other major-league organizations.

Now in its third year, the Healthcare Entrepreneurship Community Challenge rose from a three-year, $485,000 grant Hofstra University received in 2017 from the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s i6 Challenge program.

Stacey Sikes: Seamless transition.

The big picture: Help entrepreneurs develop market-based solutions to health problems in underserved communities in Downstate New York, with a steering committee of public-health experts selecting an annual “challenge topic” and entrepreneurial contenders receiving mentorship services, attending a business-building boot camp and pitching their innovations as part of an annual Regional Symposium.

The 2020 symposium – built around the annual topic of “Advancing Health Equity” – is still scheduled for October at Hofstra, pandemic-permitting. But the boot camp went virtual this week, with Long Island-based Healthy Friendz Nutrition, A Brand Shoes, My College Timeline and RN Nurses Evolve joining 27 other companies on the road to the final round, where $50,000 in business-building capital and in-kind services from private sponsors will be on the line.

Schooling those participating companies this week are 23 instructors and mentors, all beaming in from disparate locations – a true who’s who of Long Island innovation, including Nixon Peabody Office Managing Partner Allan Cohen, Accelerate New York Seed Fund Principal Noel Goddard, Northwell Health Vice President Sabina Zak, Intelligent Product Solutions President Mitch Maiman, Nomorobo founder (and Hofstra Entrepreneur in Residence) Aaron Foss … the list goes on.

With so many moving parts, transitioning the boot camp online required technological trickery and a virtual ton of logistics. But the Hofstra Center for Entrepreneurship was up to the task, according to Executive Dean Stacey Sikes, who said Tuesday “it wasn’t difficult” to apply the pandemic pivot here, after several months in the Age of Coronavirus.

Model bevahior: Hofstra and Columbia University Entrepreneur in Residence Barbara Roberts (upper left) leads a business-modeling boot camp session.

“It was pretty seamless, actually,” Sikes told Innovate LI. “We’ve been doing this since mid-March, so this is not the first program we’ve decided to run virtually.”

And it won’t be the last. The next phase of the annual Entrepreneurship Challenge, wherein participants receive additional mentoring and situation-specific guidance from program advisors, will also be virtual, before organizers, competitors and judges (hopefully) convene for October’s flesh-and-blood finale.

It won’t likely be the last of the Healthcare Entrepreneurship Challenge, either, even though that initial i6 Challenge grant runs out this year. Sikes said the Center for Entrepreneurship is “hoping to apply again” for the federal funding, and would definitely “continue to work with these companies through our mentorship programs and events.”

Supporting entrepreneurs in healthcare-related fields is more important than ever, according to Sikes, who suggested this year’s “Advancing Health Equity” topic was particularly on-point.

“Health equity in Downstate New York has been severely impacted by COVID-19,” the executive dean said. “We hope to accelerate the growth of these companies so their innovations can positivity impact healthcare outcomes by addressing social determinants of health and contribute to our economic recovery.

“Everyone was really engaged on the first day (of boot camp),” she added. “I would say it’s a successful start.”