Students pitch ideas at start-up competition

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Ben Chutz presents for Gramafon the winning team of MPowered at Rackham Auditorium Sunday Buy this photo

By Amrutha Sivakumar, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 3, 2013

Fifty-four hours. That’s how long it took for 12 teams to each build a business from the ground up.

In its third year in Ann Arbor, the MPowered Startup Weekend took place in the Rackham Graduate School building this weekend. Over a span of three days, the event brought students together with professionals to develop business solutions.

The weekend is a global effort aimed to encourage and facilitate the coalescence of novice entrepreneurs to build a business in 54 hours. MPowered, a student organization created in order to advocate student entrepreneurship, organized the event.

On Friday evening, all Startup Weekend participants were given the opportunity to pitch business proposals for potential start-ups. By late evening, 55 pitches were brought forward and participants voted on their favorites. Then, teams were built around the 12 winning pitches.

Though pitches this year tended to be mainly for technology products, other pitches included a non-profit venture to help feed impoverished children.

Business sophomore Lorenzo Salacata, an organizer of the competition, noted that though the majority of participants were students with non-engineering or computer science backgrounds, approximately 40 percent of Startup Weekend participants had coding experience.

“We’ve got a mix of people here,” Salacata said. “We have almost all the undergraduate schools represented, and with them we have graduate students and non-student professionals of the community.”

Canton Middle School student Himaja Motheram was one of the community members in attendance. Motheram decided to try her hand at pitching a business idea that would allow budget-constrained high school and college students to find odd jobs around their communities.

Motheram’s pitch involved designing a “virtual billboard” web application where people who needed help completing small tasks could interact with local youths looking for work.

“The first thing I started with (when brainstorming was) thinking of a problem to solve in my community,” Motheram said. “I then went on to think of solutions to that problem, and that’s where I came up with my idea.”

LSA freshman Kevin Moses brought forward a pitch that would create a virtual platform to join entrepreneurs with the “ideas and the business sense” to people with technical skills they may lack.

Moses explained that his business idea was born out of the need to find a solution for a personal difficulty he faced when he tried to build a business.

“When I was in high school, no one I knew could program and do all the stuff for me that I needed to pursue the idea that I had,” Moses said.

Moses added: “We have an MBA on team, two developers and two freshmen working on the business model and market evaluation. We are really emphasizing on trying to get developers, and they are doing a great job so far because building a website is the key feature of (our business).”

Motheram said that through networking during the weekend, she was able to collaborate with another participant with a marketing and business experience who complemented her coding skills.

“I hope to learn more about how to work with a team to actually create something,” Motheram said. “I want to learn how to manage my time when creating a business in just three days.”

Moses pointed out that since he and his teammates were all students with minimal entrepreneurial experience, they relied on each other’s individual expertise to solve problems.

“I think it’s awesome that I can meet people that have different skillsets than I do,” Moses said. “Even if our startup does not (win), I’ve met four people that I can continue a relationship with and maybe start something else up with.”

At the end of all the networking, planning and developing, the judges announced the results. This year’s winner was Gramofon, a social networking application that lets users share sounds with people as they experience them.

According to Salacata, networking is key to building a business.

“While not everybody can win in Startup Weekend, everybody can get their name out and build their entrepreneurial network."