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Partners in Innovation: VIA works with UVA i.Lab to Provide Employment for Adults with Autism

August 10, 2018 | Adult

Thanks to a successful partnership with the i.Lab at UVA Business Incubator program, an exciting new startup business is taking shape at the Virginia Institute of Autism. The candle assembly line at VIA’s Adult Academy now includes a melting pot for the wax, mistake-free valves and pipes for dispensing exactly the right amount, racks to hold the candles, and cradles to keep the wicks upright.  The whole assembly line is now housed in new cabinetry, and production is ready to start.

With help from an intensive summer-long program at the i.Lab Incubator, VIA is launching VIAble Ventures—a social impact program designed to develop businesses to employ people with autism. The first business being developed is one that will produce and sell decorative candles.

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“When people with autism enter adulthood, funding for services becomes very scarce, and employment opportunities are even more scarce,” says VIA’s Executive Director Ethan Long.  “We’re convinced that one solution lies in developing small, profitable businesses specifically tailored toward the skills and abilities of people with autism.”

For ten weeks this summer, VIAble Ventures staff participated in the program–working with advisors and mentors on legal and incorporation issues, marketing, and sales. One especially important focus for the work has been adapting production for a workforce with autism.

Leading the way for the VIAble Ventures team has been Program Associate Greg Pitsenberger. Greg brings with him a background working in systems and operations for the U.S. military. He’s been putting those skills to work developing every facet of the business. “Not all of our clients have the motor skills for fine, detailed work,” says Pitsenberger. “So we’ve needed to engineer the candle making in a way that makes it possible for any of our adults to perform any step in the process.”

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A key advisor for that “accommodative engineering” has been i.Lab Mentor Evan Edwards, whose expertise in human work systems and entrepreneurship has helped clarify and streamline the production planning. “The VIA team has done great work this summer,” says Edwards. “We’ve been focused not just on inventing products, but on inventing a process. I truly think this is just the beginning of VIAble Ventures building businesses and educational opportunities to support people with autism.”

The partnership has suited the mission of both organizations. “The i.Lab has an established interest in social impact projects,” says Jason Brewster, Director of the Incubator program. “VIA’s work to address the depth and breadth of the autism epidemic aligns really well with our ability to help smart, motivated people work to support an underserved community.”

“We’re honored that i.Lab at UVA saw the potential in our business model,” says Ethan Long. “We’re really excited to put into play all of their expertise and advice and get started delivering paychecks to our adult clients.”

VIAble Ventures begins candle production in mid August. Currently over a dozen local retailers are committed to carrying the candles.

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