Leangap encourages high schoolers to unlock their entrepreneurial potential

Eddy Zhong with Leangap cofounders Joe Thornton and Tim Peterson. Photo provided by Leangap.
Eddy Zhong with Leangap cofounders Joe Thornton and Tim Peterson. Photo provided by Leangap.

Eddy Zhong is the kind of kid who could give an adult an inferiority complex: He launched a successful smartwatch company, Blanc Inc., at age 16, and now at age 17, he’s created a startup accelerator program for teenagers.

Called Leangap, his accelerator seeks to help high schoolers build their own companies through a six week summer academy. Since he announced the program in January, Leangap has received more than 100 applicants from as far away as India and Taiwan. The pilot session is set to begin in June.

“A lot of kids don’t see the opportunity to become an entrepreneur early in their lives because it doesn’t seem like an option,” said Zhong.

In order to launch the program, Zhong chose to drop out of his senior year of high school to work on it full time. He said he realized the risk he was taking. “Most people advised me against it,” he said. “Pretty much everyone I talked to.”

Zhong picked up and left his home in Harvard in early December, and is now living with two other young startup founders, 19-year-old Ashwin Murali and 18-year-old Toni Oloco, of Practice Gigs, in an apartment in Kendall Square. In lieu of college — or high school, in Zhong’s case — they’re each working 12-hour days coding and chasing their dreams (“With the exception of our mothers, none of us have talked to a girl in months,” Zhong wrote in a blog post earlier this month.)

The inspiration for Leangap arose when Zhong’s 14-year-old brother asked him for help choosing a summer entrepreneurship program. When nothing came to mind, a few quick Web searches revealed that existing entrepreneurship programs didn’t go beyond writing business models and making PowerPoints.

“None of these camps gave kids resources to build something, which I thought missed the point because entrepreneurship is about creating something,” said Zhong.

So he set out to create a program that would help teens start their own companies while still in high school — and not have to make the sacrifice of leaving school to succeed.

“There’s a lot of talented kids who could be great entrepreneurs, but they don’t know it because they’re busy in school,” explained Zhong, who designed Leangap to take place during summer vacation. “We’re here to help with that and help kids unlock their true potential.”

He describes Leangap as a zero classroom and 100 percent hands-on learning experience, taking students’ ideas from concept to beta in the six-week period. Skills like Web and mobile app development, graphic design, and industrial design are included in the curriculum to help in the creation of prototypes and patenting of products. The rights of each company are retained with the students.

One of the distinguishing factors that separates Leangap from other accelerators, says Zhong, is that many of the mentors have founded companies while still in their teens.

“So many of our mentors and speakers are just other really successful high school entrepreneurs, which honestly is something you won’t find in another entrepreneurship program — because I’ve looked,” said Zhong, who plans to obtain his GED.

High school-age speakers include Ashley Olafsen, the Hopkinton High School senior behind MOVE, a nonprofit working to promote self-confidence in teens, and 17-year-old Brendan Duhamel, founder and CMO of Bitcoin startup Pavillion.io. Other notable speakers lined up are Katie Rae, managing director of Techstars Boston and of Project 11, and John Werner, head of innovation and new ventures at the Camera Culture Group at MIT Media Lab.

Zhong’s first company, Blanc Inc., was incorporated last spring. Blanc sells a smartwatch called the Spark Watch, which vibrates if it detects the user is dozing off. The watch was originally created to keep high schoolers awake in class, but has expanded to a larger market, selling to security companies in Kendall Square and at Boston University.

“Blanc is one of the main reasons I feel confident in starting a program like this,” said Zhong. “I realized that if I’m a 17-year-old kid and I can create my own product and company, then there are probably a lot of smarter 17 year-olds out there — and if I can do it, so can they.”

Zhong cofounded Leangap with Joe Thornton, a former principal at Highfields Capital Management and associate at Bain Capital, and Tim Peterson, a molecular biologist at Harvard and founder of Onarbor. High schoolers age 14 to 18 are eligible to apply, with a total of 30 spots available on a rolling basis. The $5,985 tuition cost covers room and board at a university in Boston, although need-based scholarships are available.

The deadline to apply for this year’s Leangap session is April 1.