Venture and Innovation Center Events Cultivate Entrepreneurship at St. John’s

May 6, 2024

A pair of events at St. John’s University’s new Venture & Innovation Center (VIC) brought the entrepreneurship experience to life for students, faculty, administration, and staff gathered at the Queens, NY, campus.   

On April 15, US National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) representatives discussed the challenges of bringing science-based start-up ideas to market. Three days later, two St. John’s alumni and a business partner detailed their experiences starting the Bareburger restaurant franchise.

Presenters met an enthusiastic crowd at both events held at The Peter J. Tobin College of Business.

“Why do start-ups fail?” asked Ariella Trotsenko, Director of the New York City Innovation Hot Spot, an arm of I-Corps. “There is no market need, the founders fail to protect their patents, and they eventually run out of money. Entrepreneurs need to remember that start-ups just cannot be small versions of big companies.”   

The VIC, which opened in January 2024, helps to bring transformative product ideas created by members of the St. John’s community to market, providing entrepreneurs with business resources and product-development support, including creation space, marketing strategies, and even funding.

It is the latest initiative in the University’s commitment to business development, entrepreneurship, and experiential learning. Related initiatives include the James and Eileen Christmas Business Plan Competition and Pitch Event, and the Pitch Johnny business plan contest. 

“The VIC is a resource that we hope will add to what is already a solid entrepreneurial orientation around the University,” Director James M. Kinsley, M.B.A., Professor of Management, Entrepreneurship, Consulting, and Operations (MECO) at Tobin, told those gathered for the I-Corps presentation. “We are here to provide researchers with pathways to realize the potential of what they’re researching.”  

Among those pathways was I-Corps, whose 10 national innovation hubs include the New York City metropolitan area. Ms. Trotsenko was joined by John Blaho, Ph.D., Director of Academic-Industrial Research at the City University of New York. Together, they reminded the St. John’s audience of the challenges entrepreneurs face, and the rewards of product development.

“It’s a great time to be an entrepreneur at St. John’s,” Ms. Trotsenko said, “and this is the first step in your journey. It is rewarding to learn how to take your lab work and launch a start-up and take that research to market.” 

Like the University’s VIC, I-Corps offers entrepreneurial training, mentorship, industry meet-and-greets, and more. Its popular summer entrepreneurial “boot camp” is held in August and open to St. John’s community members.          

“You learn a great deal on the I-Corps journey,” said Puya Ghazizadeh, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Division of Computer Science, Mathematics, and Science, The Lesley H. and William L. Collins College of Professional Studies.

Dr. Ghazizadeh is developing a cloud computing network to turn parked cars and other vehicles into temporary data centers. 

“I don’t have a business background; my interest is in the technical aspect of my project,” Dr. Ghazizadeh continued. “I-Corps took me out of my comfort zone, but I knew it would help me grow.” 

Bareburger’s story is one of unexpected growth and seemed to inspire the 100 visitors to the VIC on April 18. 

Jimmy Pelekanos ’97CBA and John Simeonidis ’98C joined with Mr. Pelekanos’ brother, Euripedes, and a fourth partner in creating the organic burger bistro in 2009. Their vision to develop a largely sustainable hamburger franchise has since taken off with 28 current locations, including four in Queens.

In starting the business amid an economic recession, the founders invested their own money, borrowed more, maxed out credit card balances, and even took on for themselves the less glorious tasks of restaurant management, including flipping burgers. 

However, patrons in their native Astoria, NY, neighborhood gobbled up the organic and vegan burgers so quickly that within a year, the partners had recouped all their initial investment and began expanding.   

The key, they said, was identifying their place in the market. Amid various fast-food and takeout burger chains, Bareburger discovered an audience raised on organic food that appreciated a sit-down meal. 

“We have that entrepreneurial spirit in us and we believed in taking the chance when we were young,” Jimmy Pelekanos said. “We knew that if it didn’t work it was not going to destroy us.” 

The franchise has locations in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Ohio. A flirtation with international expansion, including a location in Tokyo, Japan, proved unsuccessful. The owners are focusing on domestic growth. 

Yet, in overreaching, the owners learned a valuable business lesson they shared with the VIC audience: In business, as in life, think before you act.

“The decision to expand overseas was not strategic at all. It was totally opportunistic,” Euripedes Pelekanos admitted. “There was very little thought into how we were going to pull this off, how we were going to manage supply chains, and how we were going to do this in a foreign market. It was sexy and glitzy, but we never should have made those deals."