UGA Kickstart Fund finds new footing amid the pandemic

Student-led startup fund adjusts course mid-year, adds starter grants for early-stage ideas

Merritt Melancon | Jun. 11, 2021

UGA Kickstart Fund student board members, from left, Marshal Berton, Zakiyya Ellington, Sabina Ashurova, managing partner Christina Kurian and Jase Cowart meet at Studio 225.
UGA Kickstart Fund student board members, from left, Marshal Berton, Zakiyya Ellington, Sabina Ashurova, managing partner Christina Kurian and Jase Cowart meet at Studio 225.

Every groundbreaking startup begins with a really good idea, but what if that good idea can’t get off the ground.

That was a question facing the members of the UGA Kickstart Fund — the Entrepreneurship Program’s student-led startup fund — as they waded through grant applications for their 2020-21 funding cycle.

“A lot of the companies that were coming through were almost there. They just needed a little bit of money, but they couldn’t get that money because their ideas weren’t developed enough, yet,” said Christina Kurian, the fund’s managing partner and a graduating senior at the Terry College of Business. “They couldn’t develop their idea because they were missing just a little bit of funding, a nudge. It was a self-fulfilling cycle.”

But it was a cycle that Kurian and her fund partners could break. This spring they started considering grant requests at earlier stages and in smaller amounts, including starter grants under $1,000. The partners immediately noticed that they were funding more diverse startup ideas and that those ideas were coming in from a broader pool of applicants.

“This year the board was faced with an absolutely different reality than they had ever worked in,” said Kickstart Fund advisor Cali Brutz, a lecturer and associate director of the UGA Entrepreneurship Program. “They acted like true entrepreneurs and really innovated in a number of ways to figure how they could continue to serve student startups.”

“One of those innovations was definitely the introduction of starter grants that allowed us to reach a broader range of student startups”

The Kickstart Fund was established in 2017 with the financial support of private donors, including a major gift from the SunTrust Foundation. In the four years that the student board has been screening applicants and awarding grants, they have has distributed more than $110,000 to 29 student startups.

Kickstart grants range from $1,000 to $5,000, with the average being just over $3,000. 

Kurian and the other fund partners planned to stick with the grant levels they’d averaged in recent years when they started taking applications last fall. The fund partners began the year with a high threshold for startups to receive seed grants, Kurian said, requiring companies to be generating revenue or to have gone through a guided customer discovery program like the UGA Idea Accelerator.

“At the end of the fall semester, we had only granted $9,000, which is a lot of money but it wasn’t where we were aiming,” she said. “And we only granted it to three teams, so I could tell that our outlook was too narrow in regards to how we were judging and validating the companies. We decided to look at it through a different lens.”

That’s when the fund partners decided to offer starter grants.  

Not everyone has several hundred dollars in a bank account to pay for a payment processing service or to register their LLC, and that was holding back some startups, she said.

“Initiating the starter grants helped alleviate some of those challenges, while also leveling the playing field,” Kurian said. “It immediately broadened the types of businesses that applied to the fund. And we could see that our grants were having a direct impact on the growth of the businesses.”

This year’s student startups feature a photography business, a chicken and waffles food truck, a film production company and a streaming service for day traders.

Despite the slow start, the fund was able to attract 80 applicants by the end of spring 2021. They distributed a total of $41,932 to 12 companies, including:

  • Somewhere Waffle, a food truck serving chicken and waffles founded by economics student Worth McFall.
  • Alaina Booth Productions, a video and photography production company founded by media management student Alaina Booth.
  • Stachios, a pistachio candy company founded by nutrition sciences graduate student George Mouhawesse.
  • Gently Herbal Skincare, an all-natural skincare line founded by horticulture student Kristen Dunning.
  • Shop Solani, a whimsical accessories web store founded by computer science student Anika Kablan.
  • Sweater, a streaming platform for stock traders founded by economics student Nick Dasoveanu.
  • Stonewall Cedar, a handcrafted wood platter and charcuterie board company launched by agribusiness student Stone Pinson.
  • Crafted by Chi, a makeup service started by public health student Chimari Allen.
  • Trees for Tuition, a Christmas tree company that benefits an Atlanta community scholarship fund founded by music business and finance student Jack Faught and marketing student Calder Johnson.
  • Elevate Thrifts, an upcycled streetwear company founded by MIS and fashion merchandising student Ade Afon.
  • Scrawls on Cinema Productions, a film production company for student filmmakers founded by MIS student Kamryn Cannon.
  • Madison Spek Nutrition, a wellness coaching service founded by foods and nutrition graduate student Madison Spek.

The Kickstart Fund is one of many experiential learning programs sponsored by the UGA Entrepreneurship Program, whose mission is to help develop the mindset of future entrepreneurs and prepare students for business leadership roles.