A panel of four judges entertained pitches for nearly four hours in the middle of the TechArb office as entrepreneurial teams took part in the initial phase of the University of Michigan Center for Entrepreneurship’s premier contest, the Startup Competition.
Adorned with foosball tables, bookshelves lined with Wall Street and Silicon Valley memoirs and posters encouraging visitors to never give up, TechArb is a joint initiative between the Center for Entrepreneurship and the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies that aims to provide students startups with funding, advice and networking opportunities in the form of consulting, workshops and competitions.
The teams, which were at varying stages of product development but largely male in makeup, presented their ideas Tuesday for innovative improvements of products and services to the Student StartUp Accelerator panel — located in a basement office on East Liberty Street.
The Startup Competition is modeled after the NBC singing competition "The Voice." Each round weeds out contestants, and those who advance are presented with the chance to achieve increasing levels of funding, mentorship and professional networking opportunities. The competition awarded last year’s winning startup $15,000.
The competition kicked off with a pitch by two Engineering seniors, Rushil Bakhshi and Rohan Dasika, for a startup that aims to monitor local water usage.
For Bakhshi and Dasika, as well as their two other partners, creating a company that also seeks to incentivize people to curtail excessive water usage — as the average five-minute shower uses about 15 gallons of water — seemed a logical decision.
“When the four of us got together and started brainstorming ideas, one common thread that tied all the ideas together was that it had to impact people more than us,” Dasika said. “We wanted to know where we could reduce our water usage and how would we influence other people of our own nature to reduce water usage.”
Though their venture is in its early stages, Bakhshi believes his team’s ideas have the potential to usher in change on a broad societal level.
“We want to make a socio-economic impact that empowers people,” Bakhshi said. “We want to help change the world but we want to change our locality first.”
As a student startup in a more infant stage but looking to tackle an old University problem, Maize Book aims to provide an online marketplace where Michigan students can buy and sell textbooks without the hassle of posting on Facebook or waiting in line at Ulrich’s.
Maize Book member John Falcone, an Engineering sophomore, is confident the group can fill a niche that needs to be dealt with.
“I know, having joined last on this team and looking at it objectively as a student, that there is no kind of one streamlined process to buy or sell your textbooks,” Falcone said.
The startup, which also consists of Business sophomore Maxwell Frenkel and Engineering sophomore Michael Kalmus, promises to save students money on textbooks and to ensure that textbooks do not gather dust on bookcases or desks.
“I was looking under my desk last semester and I had a book from freshman year that is still sitting there and I paid way too much for it,” Frenkel said. “I realized there has got to be a better way than posting on Facebook about it … and (Maize Book) is really the only alternative at this point.”
For Frenkel, Maize Book represents an opportunity to deal with a persistent problem.
“If you are selling to other students, you can be a little more upfront about what you want without ripping them off,” Frenkel said.
Ellis Fried, another Startup Competition attendee and an LSA senior, has already seen his company, proteinbits LLC, grow from a personal desire for a better protein-heavy snack into a full-fledged operation with snacks for offer for sale in cafes and shops all over southeast Michigan.
Fried, a self-described nutrition and health enthusiast with an appetite for protein-heavy foods, worked with a local chef, regional packing companies and student consulting groups to bring to fruition, over just the past 11 months, a bite-sized, almond-and-chocolate-flavored snack.
Drawing positive taste tastes from the assembled panel of judges, Fried said he feels ready to take his company from its University roots to wider horizons.
“I was nervous about running this company, but I think that in the past month or two, as I have been bringing on a lot of help with consulting clubs … and a distributor,” Fried said. “I have a lot of help and teamwork that is joining me now that definitely helps.”