Seeds for VINES planted halfway around the world

Not surprisingly, the seeds for the Vanderbilt Innovation and Entrepreneurship Society (VINES) originally were sown by a student in a classroom. What may be surprising is that founder and president Benjamin Draffin was a computer engineering sophomore and the course he was taking was more than 8,000 miles away from the Vanderbilt campus.

Benjamin Draffin

VINES is an innovative and future-looking organization (more than 50 students attended its first meeting) working in tandem with a task force created by Dean Philippe Fauchet since their aims are essentially the same – to instill confidence in savvy undergraduates who have entrepreneurial ambitions and connect them with local companies and business leaders to more tightly integrate Vanderbilt into the Nashville start-up scene.

“We’re heading in the right direction,” said Draffin. “VINES is both a student system and also a part of a larger engineering initiative, united around the same objective.”

Before heading in that direction, Draffin took a detour from August-December 2012 through  Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Through an undergraduate exchange program, he took a course there in IT entrepreneurship. Just weeks earlier he’d been home – Bethesda, Md. – on break and working a summer job with a Virginia-area startup company. And while that particular job didn’t interest Draffin much, the concept of having his own startup did.

“I was planning on diving more into the startup thing when I was over there. I heard (HKUST) was a good school for that,” Draffin said. “It’s integrated into the entrepreneurial culture – the culture in place there is much farther along than the United States.”

Ben in Hong Kong where he took an IT entrepreneurship course at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

As proof of that, in just two months Draffin had started a company that allows people to have user-fulfilled tasks translated because there are so many languages spoken in Hong Kong. He’d found that professional translation services were not available to many students. Draffin was able to communicate to them details, costs and time related to courses, etc. Since there was no lower-end translation service available (there were “tons and tons for professional groups, but none for students,” he said), Draffin saw the need for it and created it. Graduate students especially were interested because they had abstracts, reports, and cover letters to write and wanted to make sure they sounded good.

“That was extremely exciting. And the major takeaway from that experience was that I really met a lot of other entrepreneurs, professors, speakers – and also realized that anyone could do this, given sufficient motivation, time, skills,” he said. “So when I came back I was excited to find like-minded people at Vanderbilt where I could continue with my experiences.”

Myriad reports, surveys and experts touting the nation’s best cities for entrepreneurs and startup businesses were ranking Nashville high on their lists. Draffin’s discovered groups such as the Entrepreneur Center, TNInvestco, the Nashville Capital Network, Jumpstart Foundry or LaunchTN were enlisting mostly Vanderbilt University alumni, and he envisioned something specific for current students – primarily undergrads.

“When I returned from Hong Kong, I discovered that in Nashville there’s a huge startup community,” Draffin said. “Second, there were definitely students involved, but on an individual level (through accelerated programs, summer projects, etc.), and third, there were on-campus groups, especially in the engineering school, that were strongly pushing for entrepreneurship, particularly the Technology Entrepreneurship Task Force.

The formation of the task force and Draffin’s return to campus was simply a case of perfect timing. Within a few weeks, VINES had a written constitution, officers, mission statement, and a calendar of meetings and events.

Quickly, VINES tapped into a pool of interested students and found a guest speaker who in many ways was a testament to what Draffin was putting together – Chris Cole, who with fellow Vanderbilt student Kyle McCollum, launched Everly, a product line of natural drink mixes in Nashville right after graduating.

Draffin admits that sustainability will be the key for VINES’ success. As a student-run organization, membership and leadership will change from year to year, which is why Draffin and James Cribbs, the group’s vice president, thought a constitution was crucial. VINES does have a faculty adviser, John Bers, associate professor of the practice of engineering management.

“I see it surviving. My best measure of success is that I’m not in it anymore,” Draffin said. “I’ll admit that it is hard for student organizations to have impact if we are working tangentially from the administration. (though VINES does have a faculty adviser). But we have less bureaucracy. We are more social and can do things faster.”

For more information about VINES, contact Draffin at