UW students awarded MVL fellowship to accelerate their startup, VerbalEyes

By Maria Hess, Partner MVL

At the beginning of 2021, we created the Madrona Venture Labs (MVL) Fellowship in partnership with the University of Washington (UW) Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering (UWCSE)-- a 12-week paid opportunity for a team of UW student entrepreneurs to work with the experienced operators and founders of MVL. Our goal was to help them accelerate their own startup idea. 

Madrona Venture Labs & Madrona Venture Group have a history of collaborating with the UW to create programs for its students. Since the mid-90s, they have backed more than 20 companies, including OctoML, Apptio, Amperity, Knock, and more, founded by UW students and professors since the mid-90s. In addition, our many engagements include the Startup Seminar at UWCSE, weekly office hours, mentorship for UW entrepreneurs, and judging various startup competitions. 

"The partnership between Madrona and the Allen School goes back nearly 30 years and has been the stimulus for the vast majority of our entrepreneurship. VerbalEyes began as a one-quarter project in an entrepreneurship course, and the team had the extraordinary opportunity to carry forward under MVL tutelage --just one example of the many ways in which Madrona has invested (not just money, but time, energy, and expertise) in the Allen School, in UW, and in the Seattle region,” said Ed Lazowska, Professor at UWSCE. 

This was our inaugural year for offering the fellowship, and after many applications and interviews, we awarded the fellowship to VerbalEyes--Daniel Zhu, Lucy Jiang, Prithvi Ranjan, and Arthur Liu. VerbalEyes audio describes video content and began with the mission to improve the experience of visually impaired consumers of videos on YouTube. 

Daniel Zhu, CEO of VerbalEyes, worked on the fellowship full-time while other teammates participated in a part-time capacity. During the 12-week fellowship, the VerbalEyes team learned about processes for customer research and development, competition and market analysis, market sizing and revenue model construction, product design and UX review, GTM strategy, Big Data and ML/AI trends, customer traction, the fundraising process and VC outreach, and pitching. 

The 12-week curriculum included best practices of MVL’s idea validation steps, ‘assignments’ due each week to demonstrate progress, and frequent practice pitches to hone delivery. The fellowship culminated in a final pitch to Soma Somasegar, Managing Director at Madrona Venture Group, and Kurtis Heimerl, UW Assistant Professor and MVL Technical Advisor. 

“We have lots of appreciation for the entire MVL team for setting up this opportunity and making sure that we were prepared. We received fantastic feedback, encouragement, and insights that’ll point us in a strong direction for the future,” said Daniel Zhu, CEO of VerbalEyes. 

Moving forward, VerbalEyes is excited to launch a pilot program for their audio description software by working with university disability resource centers across the nation for the fall term of 2021. As one of VerbalEyes’s key goals throughout the fellowship, their success and traction with the pilot program will continue to propel the team forward.

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