If you want to find out about entrepreneurship at New Jersey’s colleges and universities, the best thing to do is to ask the students who compete at UPitchNJ.
UPitchNJ is the collegiate competition for aspiring entrepreneurs in New Jersey. These are students who have been through their own school’s entrepreneurship training programs and have created, and in many cases executed on, business plans they’ve developed.
This year the event was sponsored by Nokia Bell Labs (Murray Hill) and NGP Capital (Palo Alto, Calif.). After an inspiring 7-minute talk about innovation by Paul Asel, cofounder and managing partner at NGP Capital, a global venture firm with $1.2 billion in assets managed and backed by Nokia, student entrepreneurs did their best to impress the judges during the virtual event.
Asel told the group, “Innovation is a noble profession, and entrepreneurship is one of the highest callings. It’s made a significant difference in America and around the world. Seventy five percent of new jobs are created by startups.”
“Innovation is really the application of creating a new thing,” he said. For companies that are creating disruptive innovations, things that are totally new, the average industry experience of the founders is three or four years, he told the group. “Youth brings a novel and different experience.”
The judges for the event included Sean Kennedy, data and AI lab leader at Nokia Bell Labs; Divya Raghavan, who is on the investment team at NGP Capital; Thierry Klein, head of enterprise and industrial automation research at Nokia Bell Labs; Paige Brown, a portfolio analyst at NGP Capital; and Theodore Sizer, who leads the wireless-systems, technology and software research at Nokia Bell Labs.
The first-place winner was ReLeaf, an NJIT company that is developing a tool for doctors and patients to track symptoms after a traumatic brain injury. The team also took the Audience Choice award, winning a total of $2,500. Pitching ReLeaf, Yashwee Kothari, founder, told the group that every year 2.8 million Americans suffer a traumatic brain injury, and that 41 percent of those patients have no follow-up visit with a physician within three months. Physicians also use only 2 percent of their time communicating with patients, she said. The tool — which consists of a mobile app for patients and a web-based dashboard for doctors — uses at-home check-ins to create more doctor-patient interaction and improve treatment outcomes.
Winning second place was Junction GMS, a Princeton University startup developing a platform that eliminates the need for professors to use many different programs in the digital grading process. This startup took home $1,500. The presenter, cofounder and CEO Cindy Han, noted that when professors use digital programs for grading/feedback, they typically waste five to eight hours on non-feedback tasks for each assignment while navigating multiple platforms. In addition, students can’t be sure which platform their feedback will appear on. Junction’s product changes all that by offering a suite of tools in a centralized platform.
The third-place winner of $1,000 was Solace, a Rutgers-based company in the mental health space. Pitching Solace, cofounder and CEO Laurent Shiels noted that the company was born out of his own experience of being diagnosed with depression and anxiety. He found that “securing mental health services was frustrating and disappointing,” and he had numbers to back up his claim that others felt the same way. Solace is an anonymous peer-to-peer personalized mental health platform designed to destigmatize mental disease, increase access to help and reduce the cost of mental health care, he told the judges.
The winner for best early-stage startup was ObSkill, of Stevens Institute of Technology. ObSkill was awarded $1,500. The company aims to disrupt internships by creating a new digital platform where students and startups come together to complete project-based initiatives.
The universities participating in this year’s event were: Drew University, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Montclair State University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Princeton University, Ramapo College of New Jersey, Rider University, Rowan University, Rutgers University, Saint Peter’s University, Seton Hall University and Stevens Institute of Technology.
The video of the UPitchNJ contest can be found on this Facebook page.