Student entrepreneurs compete during 'The Startup'

Grant Hardy/Daily
Engineering seniors Kyle Bettinger, Allison Powel and LSA Freshman Sharsh Hhael hold the check awarded to them for their startup, Puffberry, at the Stamps Auditorium on Friday Buy this photo

By Jing Jing Ma, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 19, 2015

Three teams of student entrepreneurs presented their business plans Friday afternoon in hopes of winning first place and a $15,000 prize in the final round of The Startup competition. The final showcase took place in the Stamps Auditorium in front of a panel of judges and an audience of student voters.

After each team presented, students were given 60 seconds to text in their vote for their favorite team. The four judges also voted after giving feedback to all the teams. The number of views each team received on videos they created to document their journeys developing their ideas throughout the semester also factored into the tabulation. Because it was a winner-take-all competition, there were no runners-up.

The Center for Entrepreneurship organized The Startup, which kicked off in January and has continued throughout the semester. Tom Frank, the CFE executive director, directed the competition.

The competition featured four rounds. In the first round, applicants vied for a place on one of the four mentors’ teams. Student teams were eliminated after each round, narrowing the contestants from 16 to three for the final round. The mentors served as the judging panel in each round.

Engineering seniors Allison Powell and Kyle Bettinger and LSA freshman Saharsh Hajela won all three categories of the competition with their creation of Puffbarry, an assistive device that would allow people with degenerative muscle diseases to communicate. The device uses puffs of air to command speech codes through a mobile application.

The idea for the device was originally presented in March at the University’s TEDx competition, where they won first place.

The team said they plan to connect with people who will help move the device from a prototype to a viable product.

“We’re going to try to reach out to manufacturers and people on the developmental side,” Hajela said. “We want to find people who can help us actually produce Puffbarry.”

Bettinger said the team has been reaching out to ALS Association clinics across the nation to gain a better sense of how to best design the device to meet the needs of patients.

“The real problem is for people who will be using the device,” Bettinger said. “We want to add forums and channels for them to tell us what they need.”

Though only one team wins the competition, The Startup encourages its contestants to continue developing their products and services after the competition.

LSA freshman Muhammad Mazhari, School of Information senior Lawrence Yong, Engineering freshman Ritwik Biswas and Engineering sophomore Carson Covell co-founded Ballot, a mobile platform that posts about issues legislators vote on and seeks to create a platform that increases engagement in government.

Yong said there are already five politicians who have expressed interest in using the platform. The team said they hope to find a marketing expert to further their startup.

“We want to find someone who focuses on marketing specifically to get to know what customers want from our product,” Mazhari said.

LSA sophomores Christopher Shepherd and Nicholas Zajciw will also continue their project, HiveLend, which is a mobile application and website to connect farmers to beekeepers. Shepherd and Zajciw plan to continue developing HiveLend over the summer in California.

Frank said The Startup is unique among other entrepreneurial competitions as it seeks to provide resources and mentorship to help entrepreneurs develop their ideas from the pitch stage to viable businesses.

“There are a lot of contests and pitch competitions on campus. Those tend to be a one-off and a lot of times I’ve found people didn’t know what happened to the winner after the end of that contest,” Frank said. “The main point of The Startup was to provide the resources and mentorship to move these teams along in developing their businesses rather than doing just a stand alone event.”

During the final showcase, several teams discussed the progress they made with their business ideas since they were eliminated from the competition.

CooksForMe recently opened a storefront. CooksForMe is a website that connects customers to home chefs from whom they can order freshly prepared meals for pick-up, delivery or eat-in at the chef’s home. Frank said the company would receive an additional $500 from the CFE to support its continued development.

Sarah Bachleda, communications and marketing maven for the CFE, said one of the greatest points of success for The Startup was how the contestants were able to develop their pitches into plausible businesses in a short semester-long period.

“When you’re given structure, resources and mentorship, and you take a team that’s dedicated to their vision and you put them in combination with those resources, incredible things can happen,” Bachleda said.