Why intern for somebody else’s company when you can start your own?
That’s the idea behind Summer@Highland, a program by Cambridge venture capital firm Highland Capital Partners, which gives student entrepreneurs free office space, expert guidance, and $15,000 cash — all with no strings attached.
The program, launched in 2007, has already hatched several successful companies, including Boston online custom jewelry maker Gemvara,which recently raked in $25 million during a round of fund-raising that ended last month.
Summer@Highland is open to undergraduates, graduate students, and recent graduates. This year, 257 teams from across the country applied for 14 spots. The winning teams operate out of Highland’s Cambridge and California offices for 10 weeks, developing their businesses while making connections with chief executives, founders, and venture capitalists brought in by Highland to give presentations and chat with students.
This summer, interns at Highland’s Cambridge office are working on a variety of projects, including a headband by a team called Axio that reads users’ brain waves and sends a visual representation of the data to a screen. Another team is writing software that would help build trust between strangers online who want to swap houses or carpool.
The latter project is the brainchild of Boston University juniors Nam Chu Hoai and Connor McEwan, both 20. Their idea, called Webcred, is to give users a universal online login that can take “trust” earned on any website — a positive buyer rating on eBay, for example — and display their trustworthiness wherever they go online.
Hoai and McEwan met as freshmen when they were assigned as roommates. Now they’re running a company, something that has proved more difficult than anticipated. In part, that’s because their idea has both technical and business obstacles to overcome, such as winning over websites that could benefit from the product.
“We’re sleeping in the office half of the nights. It’s frustrating at times,” Hoai said. “You have to be somewhat crazy to do this.”
Highland vice president Michael Gaiss says the company is looking for interns with passion, natural leadership qualities, and a history of entrepreneurship that might stretch back to childhood lemonade stands.
“I know they can go take more lucrative summer internships from Microsoft or Facebook,” said Gaiss, “so we’re really looking for those who want to forgo the more secure opportunities in order to change the world with their visions.”
Many of the business ideas will fail, Gaiss said, but that’s OK, too.
“Sometimes the best answer is, ‘This isn’t really going to take off,’ ” Gaiss said. “We’re helping smart people think through things.”