NJIT New Business Model Competition Gives Students, Community Entrepreneurs A Chance to Shine

LeShannon Wright had never pitched a business idea before, and the prospect of public speaking to impress judges made her a bit nauseous.

But the afternoon of December 3 was a time of firsts for the 32-year-old NJIT graduate student from Edison. That’s when the school held its 11th annual New Business Model Competition.

It was her first pitch contest, the first time she spoke publicly about a business idea. She answered her first business questions. Then, later that day, she scored her first first-place award, earning the highly coveted Tommy Award, named in honor of Thomas Edison.

Wright also won a $3,000 Innovation Acceleration Fellowship to attend the NJIT Lean Startup Summer Accelerator, and a $2,500 WinWin award for the best business idea that combines resources from government, nonprofits and businesses to produce maximum profits and a maximum social impact.

“I’ve never done anything remotely similar to the pitch at NJIT. This was the very first time I spoke publicly about my health conditions and the reason behind building my business. It was quite tough for me to present, although I managed,” she said. “I felt a bit overwhelmed hearing my name for first place, as the competition was tough.”

Waqar Khokhar accepts the Tommy Award. | William Swayze

The contest had both student and business-community components. While Wright won the student contest, Waqar Khokhar, a product security architect at global medical technology company Becton, Dickinson and Company (Franklin Lakes), won the business community component. He also won a Tommy and a $3,000 Innovation Acceleration Fellowship. It marked Khokhar’s first pitch, and the first win for Khokhar and his partner, Attiq Amjad.

Wright pitched what she described as a “hip feminine hygiene subscription service for tweens, meant to cater to their first period and beyond.”

Called “Turning Tulips,” the NJIT-based business has a website, www.turningtulips.com. “This customizable experience will provide girls with everything from hygienic products, soothing treats, and tutorials to a sisterhood of support and educational enrichment. Our mission is to improve menstrual equity through education by destigmatizing and making periods pretty,” she said.

Khokhar pitched Placecard, a mobile and web-based tool that he and Amjad developed to assist in event planning when assigned seating is involved.

“It utilizes a user-friendly interface to create a basic floor plan, and crowdsourcing to enable guests to choose their own seats,” Khokhar said.

Many Strong Submissions

Michael Ehrlich, associate professor at NJIT’s Martin Tuchman School of Management and codirector of the NJIT Innovation Acceleration Center, said, “I was very impressed with the quality of all of the finalists. Partly, that was because we had many strong submissions and had judges pick the best ones as finalists, and partly that was because we gave them some coaching before the New Business Model Competition.”

The judges scored the finalists on problem-solving, necessity and purpose, and questioned the need for each business, as well as its worth, value, feasibility and appearance. They also scored the contestants on their answers to some brief questions.

“I look forward to working with all of the winners and many of the other finalists, as they participate in the NJIT Lean Startup Summer Accelerator program with me. We will work with them to help them launch their businesses,” he said.

All told, 92 pitches were submitted and reviewed before 16 finalists were selected: eight students and eight contestants from the business community.

There were other winners. In the business community category, John Rondi, Michael Amegashie and Kyle Jacobs also made successful pitches, as did Owais Aftab, Anh Tong and Keyra Pulliam in the student contest. They all received $3,000 Innovation Acceleration Fellowships to attend the NJIT Lean Startup Summer Accelerator, he said. Rondi also won a $2,500 WinWin award.

Boosting Entrepreneurship in New Jersey

The winning business plans included one that would establish a global community for students that would bridge the gap between academics and social media. There were also plans to tackle auditory processing disorder and to commercialize synthetic tissue using computers and automation. One finalist wanted to update methods for mock interviewing and find credible resources for practice sessions. Another wanted to modernize the standard paint brush with an opener and closer that doubles as a paint scraper. And, lastly, one business planned to provide beauty services for individuals who have difficulty with mobility.

“We are really looking to boost entrepreneurship in northern New Jersey, and we look to do that along two dimensions. One is the students. We are also trying to reach out to the broader community and allow anybody who is a nonstudent to also participate and bring forth ideas,” Ehrlich said.

“The competition is for early-stage ideas, so usually these are not actually businesses yet. They are still concepts. They may have some prototypes, and some proofs of concepts. It is a chance for people to think through their business models and to present them and win a small amount of money. But the big prize isn’t money. They are all going to participate in a 10-week summer accelerator program. That will help them with their financial models and other aspects,” he said. “Everybody who makes a submission is a winner. There were some great projects, and I hope they move forward with them,” he said

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