As a student at Hofstra University, Michael Lai started out building a mental wellness app aimed at people recovering from addiction. When Covid-19 hit, the mentors at the Long Island university’s ideaHUb incubator helped open his eyes to new marketing opportunities, encouraging him to pivot and adapt the product to assist people affected by the stress and solitude brought on by the pandemic.
As a result, Lai’s company, Cress Health, forged a partnership with Illinois-based AMITA Health, one of the Midwest’s largest hospital systems, to put the Callie App at its employees’ fingertips. The company also is successfully marketing the application to other organizations and individuals, including healthcare workers, young adults and college students dealing with social isolation.
“We have tried to get the app into as many hands as possible during the pandemic,” Lai said. “Without ideaHUb I don’t think I would be where I am today. It is really a tremendous program.”
The ideaHUb is a New York State Certified Business Incubator, as designated by NYSTAR in 2019. It is physically located in the Business School Building, offering a high-tech maker space, conference rooms and other co-working amenities, but it pivoted to a virtual model during the pandemic.
Stacey Sikes, Executive Dean of Entrepreneurship and Business Development at Hofstra, said ideaHUb is open to all sectors, “so it can be a technology-based business or a business that supports community economic development. We have programs and mentors that can help any type of business.”
She said priority is given to companies founded by Hofstra students and alumni, minority-and-women owned businesses, veteran-owned businesses, and companies in the healthcare space. Cress Health meets a few of these criteria. Lai graduated from Hofstra in May and is now running his digital healthcare technology business as an alumnus and ideaHUb client.
Like most ideaHUb companies, Cress Health first took advantage of programs offered by the affiliated Center for Entrepreneurship (CFE). Sikes described the CFE, which was established in 2015, as “a place where regional entrepreneurs and students can collaborate, innovate, and build entrepreneurial skills.”
“[Hofstra] President Stuart Rabinowitz started the Center because he wanted to instill an entrepreneurial culture across the university,” she said. “Hofstra is one of three New York City regional universities with colleges of law, engineering and medicine, as well as a highly regarded school of business. It is my opinion the CFE has had a transformative Impact on Long Island and the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.” she said.
Some CFE programs are limited to Long Island businesses but others are open to entrepreneurs nationally. They include the Hofstra-Digital Remedy Venture Challenge for Hofstra students and the Hofstra Veterans Venture Challenge open to veterans, military spouses, and Gold Star Families from around the United States. Sikes said many of the CFE program participants, particularly those headed by student entrepreneurs, are companies in the very early stages—sometimes just the idea stage while others, including those in the Veteran’s Challenge, may be a bit further along.
Since 2015, CFE has offered more than 1,700 mentor sessions with its entrepreneurs in residence, and has hosted more than 400 events with a combined attendance of more than 10,000 people. Entrepreneurs affiliated with the center have received over $670,000 in prize money, not counting any follow-on funding or investments, and about 150 prototypes have been created and tested.
In January 2021, the CFE received a national award and a $10,000 prize from the U.S. Small Business Administration and the National Science and Technology Council’s Lab-to-Market subcommittee, for supporting local small businesses during the pandemic, including through its Ascend Long Island program for diverse entrepreneurs.
Lai started at Hofstra as a biology major in the pre-med program. He had an idea for a comprehensive “all in one” self-care application with a variety of features including meditations, sleep stories, self-affirmations, guided encouragement, breathing exercises and a virtual wellness coach. But when it came to starting a business, “it was definitely very foreign to me,” he said.
That changed with the guidance and mentorship he received through the CFE and ideaHUb.
“They really set the foundation for me to build my business and gave me the technical knowledge I needed to find market opportunities and operate on them,” he said.
Lai entered the Digital Remedy Challenge and took third place, winning $8,500. He also took second in the Healthcare Entrepreneurship Challenge, receiving $18,000. He said that just as beneficial as the money was the education he received during the boot camps that preceded both events, with a series of speakers on a number of topics.
“Those talks were really instrumental,” he said.
Lai also took first place in the 2019 Long Island Business Plan Competition and was the national grand prize winner in the Graduate Management Admission Council’s 2019 “Think Like and Entrepreneur” contest, which netted him a $10,000 prize.
The ideaHUb is the next step for companies like Cress Health that have completed programs within the CFE, providing a continuing source of mentorship and assistance from a number of entrepreneurs in residence.
“We do periodic update meetings with the companies, and we are there if they run into anything and need help,” Sikes said. “We also have client-specific workshops which have included such topics as intellectual property, grant writing and HR.”
Lai, who joined ideaHUb while still a Hofstra student, said the incubator’s mentors were not only helpful in guiding him though his pivot at the start of the pandemic, but also in connecting him with “multiple industry professionals to help guide me and give me insight on what is currently going on.”
Sikes said one of the biggest draws of the incubator is the ability to work with Hofstra students placed through an intern matching program. Students participate in workshops at the CFE and then work on a project related to their area of study with a client company in return for academic credit or a stipend supported by a NYSTAR grant.
Lai agreed that hosting interns is one of the most beneficial aspects of being an ideaHUb client. He has lost count of how many he has had work at Cress Health.
Although Lai is now focusing his energy on Cress Health full time, he has been accepted into Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and will be pursuing his MBA there at some point in the future.
“I think this really goes to show how much of a catalyst the ideaHUb program is,” he said. “I went from a bio major with very lackluster business experience to someone who is now pursuing this as a career.”