Giving up a Harvard University education to help develop a high-tech wearable device for elite athletes might sound crazy to some.
For Whoop co-founder and Grand Rapids native John Capodilupo, the decision was a no-brainer.
In fact, the university supported the decision. Harvard is among a number of business schools to offer a flexible leave and return policy to allow student entrepreneurs to drop out to pursue a venture — along with resources to back them up.
A graduate of Grand Rapids Catholic Central High School, Capodilupo left Harvard in 2012 after his sophomore year to devote his time and energy to Whoop after meeting the company’s other co-founders, who had already graduated. Even so, they were able to tap into other resources like Harvard Innovation Lab (i-Lab), where they would meet an eventual investor in the company.
To date, Whoop has raised nearly $25 million in private capital to commercialize its idea, with the company’s three co-founders earning recognition on the Forbes 30 under 30 entrepreneurs list this year.
Reflecting on the last five years, Capodilupo, the company’s chief technology officer, remains convinced he made the right decision to drop out.
“I imagine one day I will go back, but I don’t regret it at all,” he said. “I don’t think I would have been able to do it in two more years. The wearable marketplace is so crowded, the timing was really right.”
While some colleges, like Harvard, support student entrepreneurs who drop out to pursue an entrepreneurial venture, others offer an array of incentives to attract young people looking to strike it big with a tech or startup venture.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal noted that prestigious business schools across the nation have invested millions to create innovation centers and venture capital funds as a way to recruit more aspiring entrepreneurs and company founders.
In addition to its flexible policies and resources, Harvard for its part also offers programs like the Thiel Fellowship, which offers entrepreneurial students $100,000 to drop out of school for two years.
Capodilupo credits some of those Harvard resources for helping Whoop get off the ground. However, the company still faced its share of challenges, including securing funding and developing the technology itself.
“What I like most in life is learning new things, discovering new things, figuring out how things work,” he said. “Every day, I’m learning something new and applying it in new ways. It was an opportunity I knew would be very hard to come by. I think it was the right decision.”
For Capodilupo and his partners, Whoop has started to gain traction, opening its online store to general consumers in late 2016. This April, the company announced a deal as the officially licensed recovery wearable of the NFL Players Association.
Professional and collegiate athletes playing a variety of sports were among the early adopters of the company’s technology. The Whoop performance optimization system includes a wrist-worn strap that measures key strain and recovery variables that are then analyzed to balance training, reduce injuries and enhance recovery and performance. Competitors in the 2016 Olympics even used Whoop’s products to train.
PERKS FOR STUDENT STATUS
While Harvard supports students who take a hiatus and the Whoop experience has worked out for Capodilupo, other young entrepreneurs often take a different approach, such as enrolling in an entrepreneurship or MBA program as a way to gain access to funding, reignite a stalled venture or hone their leadership skills.
With enrollment to U.S. business schools down in recent years, universities have upped the ante with the lure of scholarships, competitions and seed money, counseling and mentoring and a degree.
Grand Valley State University launched an undergraduate entrepreneurship program in 2014, and just this month the university’s Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI) in the Seidman College of Business was recognized for being a leader in entrepreneurial education.
The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the world’s largest global education network, honored CEI for its commitment to creating innovative programs and fostering entrepreneurship in the next generation of business leaders.
GVSU’s program has mostly traditional, full-time undergraduate students, and only about 5 percent are trying to start a business while in school, said CEI Director Shorouq Almallah.
Almallah has heard from colleagues at other universities that some students do struggle between pursuing their businesses or continuing their education.
Unlike traditional MBA degrees, entrepreneurship programs help students build skills in creativity, critical thinking and collaboration with real-world application, whether they go to work for someone else or pursue their own ventures.
“We strongly believe if you design a program that allows the student to get course credit for pursuing their business, then you kind of eliminate some of that struggle,” she said. “We have a major in entrepreneurship and a lot of the classes have a hands-on, experiential component. The students are required to launch a business or tackle an entrepreneurial project.”
Beyond that, professors and faculty members coach and mentor students along the way and support them in and out of the classroom. The competitions and accelerator programs can also help catalyze student ventures.
“I know for sure being an entrepreneurial student can unlock a lot of funding,” Almallah said. “By going to all of these student competitions, they are able to leverage that student status very well.”
One downside is that after graduation, many of those students struggle to find additional investors and capital to keep the venture going.
Grand Valley hasn’t had a graduating class for its entrepreneurship program yet, so it doesn’t have any data about what graduates do after graduation. However, other programs have found most graduates go into the workforce for a time and return to their business idea within 10 years, Almallah said.
At Whoop, the company’s founders join a long list of tech startups — including the likes of Google, Facebook, Dell, Microsoft and Yahoo — started by people who connected in college.
Capodilupo, a one-time member of Harvard’s class of 2014, met Whoop’s co-founder and CEO Will Ahmed during his sophomore year. Capodilupo was studying math and science and thought he would follow a similar career path as his father: a life of academic research.
Ahmed, a former captain of Harvard’s men’s varsity squash team, graduated in 2012 and wanted to create a Fitbit-like device for hardcore athletes, but with more data and performance metrics. They brought in Aurelian Nicolae, another Harvard grad, to help with mechanical prototyping and engineering.
Capodilupo said the idea fit with his interests, combining science, exercise physiology and technology.
“The body has a lot of rhythms that you can measure,” he said. “Will and I worked over the summer at the Harvard Innovation Lab, and the three of us, cranking over the summer, (figured out) how we would go about building this device, gathering data sets that had never been gathered before.”
At the time, just one or two companies had brought to market a wearable fitness device, which was then an emerging technology. What makes Whoop different is not only the amount and frequency of data it collects such as heart rate variability, sleep quality and exercise, but the product offers customized feedback on strain, recovery and sleep. It tells wearers how prepared the body is for strain the next day. For athletes, it’s important to prevent overtraining and injury, and the device sometimes recommends they take a rest day.
Capodilupo and his partners received support from Harvard Innovation Lab and made good connections there. The trio worked out of the Harvard Innovation Lab for a year and a half and helped set up the machine shop, which is still available for all companies headquartered there to use.
They met Eric Paley of Founder Collective at one of the office hour events the i-Lab holds regularly. He became an investor and introduced them to Accomplice Ventures, which led Whoop’s seed round, he said.
Neither the i-Lab nor Harvard invested any money in Whoop, but some early advisers to the company were Harvard professors or affiliated with Harvard in some way.
Now 25 years old, Capodilupo remains on an extended leave of absence and may return someday to finish school. He lives and works in Boston, where Whoop’s offices overlook Fenway Park.
“It’s such a great atmosphere to form a great foundation, and my peer group pushed me as well,” he said.