Last summer, six student founders took their startups to the next level with Entrepreneurship@DU’s BASE Camp Accelerator. We caught up with three of the founders to reflect on BASE Camp, how the experience impacted their businesses and where they plan to go from here.

On July 31, Entrepreneurship@DU’s home base, The Garage, hosted six exciting startups founded by DU students and recent graduates. For five weeks, these founders toured local startups, workshopped with industry experts and developed their ventures side-by-side in The Garage’s coworking spaces and makerspaces. The accelerator culminated in a final pitch to a panel of professional entrepreneurs, as well as a $5,000 stipend for each team to continue developing their businesses.

We caught up with Leah Sullivan (BSBA 2024), Strother Gaines (MBA 2024) and Luca Gacy (MS 2023) to learn more about their startups, how BASE Camp has influenced their approaches to entrepreneurship, and how the program has shaped their futures as entrepreneurs.

Lean Sullivan

Leah Sullivan: STOKED LA

STOKED LA is a fashion brand dedicated to both style and comfort. Since founding her company in 2019, Leah Sullivan tells us balancing work between her startup and her schooling has been a challenge. “Running a business, going to class and trying to live a college life… it was difficult,” she says. “I saw the effects in my business.” BASE Camp was an opportunity to fully dedicate her attention to her venture.

For Sullivan, BASE Camp pushed her to dive deep into her startup. She was forced to develop the “micro-elements” that are key to running a business, including the prep work that often gets overlooked. One industry expert provided sage wisdom during BASE Camp: so many founders work in their business, but they forget to work on their business. In other words: entrepreneurs must take time to envision the strategy of their business, rather than rushing to manage the basic functions of the business.

“I like to focus on the design elements of STOKED LA,” Sullivan says. “The fashion shows, making the clothes… the fun stuff! But there are so many important parts of running a business, like understanding the accounting, industry trends, wholesaling, etc.” BASE Camp provided Sullivan the opportunity to develop these aspects of her business, especially through company tours and workshopping with successful founders. Touring Bruz Beers was especially informative for Sullivan — despite beer and fashion being very different industries, Sullivan says much of Ryan Evans’s advice translated to her work with STOKED LA.

With BASE Camp under her belt, Sullivan has a newfound confidence to expand STOKED LA’s brand in the market. During the accelerator, she was accepted to partake in Denver Fashion Week (DFW), a major step toward establishing her brand’s reputation in the fashion world. Customer research during BASE Camp has led Sullivan to expand her company’s inventory. She is developing accessories such as slippers, claw clips and tank tops. After DFW, she is excited to implement new marketing tactics and continue growing her business as she finishes her degree at DU.

Strother Gaines speaking at TEDx

Strother Gaines: TheraPlay

Before coming to DU, Strother Gaines had extensive experience in the performing arts. In 2016, he founded Tradition Be Damned Immersive (TBD) in Washington, D.C. TBD uses interactive and immersive performance art to connect with audiences in unique and innovative ways. In 2021, Gaines came to DU to pursue dual MSW/MBA degrees, to expand his skills and combine the forces of his artistic and entrepreneurial passions. As a result, he found his way to Entrepreneurship@DU’s BASE Camp Accelerator, where he developed a new venture that combines immersive theatre with gaming and mental health/personal development.

Though he plans to change the name of TheraPlay (Younicorn Therapeutics is his top candidate), Gaines took advantage of the BASE Camp program to pin down the branding and target market of his company. His vision entails customers both developing and participating in immersive art experiences, giving people a unique creative outlet that ties to their personal development goals. Through BASE Camp, Gaines investigated how to communicate the value of his services in ways that can be appreciated by people outside the theatre community.

“I’ve found that theatre is often undervalued by corporations and larger companies,” Gaines says. “BASE Camp has helped give me the language I need to communicate in the corporate world, and to show that the skills we have can be valuable in other spaces.” With an intrinsically artistic and therapeutic concept like TheraPlay, Gaines feels confident he can connect with investors and business professionals in ways they can fully appreciate. He recently spoke at the American Academy of Psychotherapists Conference on the topic of therapeutic play, and his presentation was refined based on the research he accomplished during BASE Camp.

Looking back at BASE Camp, Gaines recalls late nights at The Garage with other members of the BASE Camp cohort, working hard to meet their deadlines and stay on track with the accelerator. “There was a sense of camaraderie—especially in the sense of, ‘oh my god, we’re all on fire, all of the time,’” Gaines said. “And that’s the point of an accelerator: to rapidly push forward our businesses.” While the work on-campus was intense, the group enjoyed getting off-campus to see entrepreneurship in-practice at venues like Stanley Marketplace and Bruz Beers.

Luca Gacy running his booth at an esports tournament

Luca Gacy: ICEBOX Controllers

Since our conversation on the Entrepreneurship@DU Podcast, Luca Gacy has been hard at work on his company. ICEBOX is an ergonomically optimized video game controller designed to allow competitive gamers to play for long periods of time with pinpoint accuracy. Until now, Gacy has focused on making his controllers and partnering with e-sports tournaments to get the word out. Thanks to his BASE Camp research, he has further developed his business plan and is now taking time to save money, expand his team and diversify his marketing tactics.

“During BASE Camp, I had the realization that I love the design elements of ICEBOX, but I struggle with the marketing and sales side of everything,” Gacy says. “BASE Camp doesn’t sugarcoat it—I caught a glimpse into the dedication and passion it takes to start a business. It was a serious crash course.” With new expertise from industry professionals, Gacy feels confident he can recruit someone who shares his passion while also being able to take on some of the necessary workload.

In the meantime, Gacy is investigating low-cost ways of organically marketing his brand through online platforms like YouTube. “I have a bunch of weird video ideas,” he laughs. “Some involve wacky custom controllers, and then I convince my friends to try them out.” One concept involves attaching an accelerometer to an exercise balance board, creating a challenging full-body joystick for games like Mario Kart or Super Monkey Ball.

Gacy says the BASE Camp cohort bonded over the intensity and time constraints of the accelerator. “The group was amazing—10 out of 10 people, for sure,” Gacy says. “It’s cool seeing people as motivated as you in their own fields. Everyone gave each other really good ideas, even when we were working crazy hours on our own projects.” Gacy says BASE Camp taught him the dedication, time, and capital it takes to start a business. He plans to find a computer science/engineering job that will help him save the funds to pursue ICEBOX full time. Until then, he is excited to continue developing his business plan, and to keep creating ICEBOX controllers and online content in his free time.