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Escape Room + Travel, Yes! Student business accelerator launches ‘real-world escape room’ for travelers

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October 18-20, 2023 / Tucson, AZ
The annual summit for research institution gap fund and accelerator programs, including proof of concept programs, startup accelerators, and university venture funds

The Story

Western Michigan University launched the Starting Gate, a student business accelerator, in 2013, when the school began to seriously address how to support the transfer of technology from university labs to the marketplace and help commercialize the aspirations of other would-be entrepreneurs on campus.

Since then, it has helped launch 80 companies, held more than 400 events, awarded $50,000 in seed money and seen its companies get $380,000 in grants and file 10 patent applications.

The Starting Gate is located in 1,000 square feet in the Park Trades Center Building in downtown Kalamazoo and is operated by the Haworth College of Business Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in partnership with WMU’s Office of Community Outreach.

Acceptance to the accelerator is available to all WMU students through a competitive application process. Students need to demonstrate a promising idea for a product or service that can be launched quickly. Fifteen student companies go through the program each year, from October through March.

The accelerator is open 24 hours per day, with mentors, faculty members and successful entrepreneurs helping define markets and refine the business model through what are called update nights. Experts are also available to offer legal advice and introduction to would-be investors.

At the end of those six months, companies participate in Demo Day, making brief pitches to an audience of potential investors.

Companies that Starting Gate has helped launch range from the highest of high tech — like SafeSense Technologies LLC, which makes flexible sensors for sports helmets that measure the impact of major and minor collisions — to playful customer services companies like Cluventure Travel LLC, which arranges surprising vacation experiences that require participants to solve a series of clues.

SafeSense was one of the first companies the Starting Gate helped. It has gone on to get $650,000 in grants and has a partnership with Xenith Inc., a helmet maker in Detroit that Dan Gilbert has invested in. Cluventure is a recent Starting Gate graduate.

Last March, Cluventure won the first-place prize of $2,000 at Western’s sixth annual K.C. O’Shaughnessy Business Pitch Competition and Showcase held on campus March 23. More than 25 companies made three-minute pitches for a total of $5,000 in prize money.

In May, Cluventure was named by Starting Gate as winner of the first annual $5,000 Wendell Christoff Award, an award named for an alumnus of WMU who got his degree in business administration in 1968. He is CEO and president of Litehouse Inc., a Lowell, Mich., maker of salad dressings and sauces that Entrepreneur magazine has named as a Top 100 privately held company.

Cluventure founder and CEO Desi Taylor has graduated from the Starting Gate program but not yet from WMU, where she is a senior majoring in Spanish. But Cluventure is going strong, arranging vacations and generating revenue, and Taylor says the business, which she promotes as a travel agency with a twist, will be her full-time focus.

“After I graduate in April, I will put my heart and soul into this. It’s what I’m passionate about,” she said. “We recently launched a corporate section on our website. The agenda for 2019 is finalizing our corporate retreat pitch. We’ve done one corporate retreat so far.”

Cluventure aims to combine mystery, unplanned adventure and travel to create an interactive vacation experience. Each trip is customized following interviews to determine a customer’s likes and dislikes. Cluventure arranges transportation, lodging and activities, nearly all of which is a mystery to vacationers until they get where they are going.

Upon arrival, travelers must solve a series of clues to find out what activities have been planned.

So far, Taylor has booked 87 trips for individuals, including international trips to Aruba, Greece and Costa Rica.

She is the only official employee, but has 11 part-time subcontractors on her team, helping with customer interviews and trip arrangements.

Desi Taylor

Born out of grief

Taylor is older than the average senior at 27, having combined school with life as a musician, first in Denver and then in Kalamazoo, playing guitar and piano, singing, negotiating contracts and managing bands. She took the fall semester of 2018 off to concentrate on Cluventure, then it was back to school for her last two classes.

“I’m not in her demographic but it’s something I really like,” said Lara Hobson, director of operations at the Starting Gate, of Cluventure’s business model. “It’s generated so much business. Of all the students I’ve worked with, Desi is the most open minded and appreciative. She’s motivated and ambitious, and she’s done a lot of research to see if people want this. And it seems they do.”

Taylor said Cluventure grew out of a trip she planned for herself and her significant other in 2013. Each had had close friends die, and they needed something to break the depressing spell. Taylor said she came up with the idea of planning a three-week trip that would require her partner to solve clues to figure out the next item on the agenda.

“I told her, ‘We need a road trip, and I’m going to surprise you,'” recounted Taylor. A big surprise was visiting the Modern Love Omaha restaurant in Omaha, Neb., run by her partner’s favorite chef, Isa Chandra Moskowitz.

When they got back, “People said, ‘Wow, that looks like so much fun. I wish someone would plan something like that for me,'” said Taylor.

Taylor filed the paperwork to form her company in August 2016.

The Starting Gate connection was happenstance. In October 2017, she was cat-sitting for a friend and saw a flier for the student accelerator sitting on a table. “I applied the last day possible and got in, and it changed everything. It gave me formal training,” she said.

Suzanne McCloskey is one of Cluventure’s very satisfied customers. McCloskey, an IT specialist at Consumers Energy in Jackson, visited Cluventure’s booth at an annual fair of women business owners hosted by Consumers hosts for women who own businesses that might be of interest to Consumers’ employees.

Last year, the event was held in August. There, McCloskey visited Cluventure’s booth, until then unaware of the company.

“Cluventure immediately caught my attention. It was a real-world escape room. You’re trying to solve puzzles to find your destinations, and I love solving puzzles. I was immediately hooked,” she said. “It was the gamification of travel. And I loved the idea that I didn’t have to plan anything.”

She and her husband, Alex Butterfield, decided to give Cluventure a short trial before committing to a long vacation to distant places.

They did an interview with the Cluventure and then settled on a two-day overnight trip somewhere near Jackson. “We told them we like unique things, stuff you wouldn’t find on a Chamber of Commerce website,” said McCloskey.

In November, after solving several clues, they ended up at Kara’s Kottages, an upscale B&B in Kalamazoo. A clue there led them to the nearby Kalamazoo Mall, the key word being paraffin. At the mall, they found a candle shop, went in and asked if anyone there knew if they were supposed to be there. They were. It was, it turned out, time to make candles. In the hour it took for the candles to set, they dined at Principle Food & Drink on comfort food with bespoke cocktails, which they loved.

The next day came their final clue, a street address. When they got there, it was a neighborhood home, no sign out front, no indication it was a business. They walked to the door, were invited in by the couple that lived there and found out they were about to make mozzarella cheese, ricotta cheese and homemade pasta.

“I couldn’t think of anything better than that,” said McCloskey. “I definitely want to try an international destination, now.”

Costs for trips vary, but the Cluventure website lists baseline figures, which don’t include food or drink.

For domestic travels, costs range from $300 per person for an overnight stay to $4,500 per person for a 10-day trip. Costs for international trips range from $2,625 to $7,000 per person.

There are higher-priced luxury trips for both domestic and international travel.


Source: Student business accelerator launches ‘real-world escape room’ for travelers

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