Every year, universities throughout the Garden State send their top student entrepreneurs to UPitchNJ, where they compete by pitching their businesses to established technology professionals. In 2023, some 10 teams presented to executives at Nokia Bell Labs (Murray Hill), New Jersey’s premier tech research organization, which sponsored the event.
Before their pitches, the students and attendees heard from Thierry Klein, president of Bell Labs Solutions Research (BLSR), who introduced the event, noting that this was the eighth year of UPitchNJ and the fourth year that Nokia Bell Labs had participated.
“It is a fantastic event [for us to be able to] learn, encourage, challenge a little bit these new ideas that come from our great state of New Jersey. We are very excited to see the innovations that are happening, both on the technology and on the business side.”
One of the judges, Chris Jones, vice president of strategic partnerships at Nokia, noted that he spends a lot of time with startups, working out how they can work with the larger Nokia Corporation. He said that he routinely hears lots of pitches that revolve around the telecom world, but was excited to hear the fresh ideas coming from the student participants.
The remaining judges from Nokia Bell Labs were: Jani Kangas, director of BLSR strategic innovation management; Nirupama Ravi, head of software systems research, and Stacy Kornhauser, head of BLSR Program Office.
Susan Scherreik, Founding Director, Seton Hall University Center of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, who developed the idea for UPitchNJ, said that the Bell Labs collaboration was a “dream come true” for the program. According to the initial documents on the event, she said, the mission was to brand New Jersey as the innovative state that has long been the home of Bell Labs.
The winners included:
[First Place Winner: MoneyUp – Alex Simeon, Rutgers University, New Brunswick ($2,000)]
Alex Simeon, representing MoneyUp, was the first student to present at the pitch competition. “We are a fintech startup that’s reimagining financial literacy and personal finance for college students and Gen Z; 50 percent of college students don’t have a savings account, and 60 percent of Gen Z has less than $1,000 saved up,” he said. “They can’t budget, manage money, diversify, manage assets, save, etc. These are simple things that are needed to survive in life, and they simply don’t know them.”
MoneyUp offers a mobile app “designed by college students in Gen Z for college students in Gen Z. We combined a suite of financial tools, including mobile banking, investing, budgeting and money management, and paired it up seamlessly with engaging financial education that’s presented through educational short-form videos, personalized news feeds, a trivia library and an AI [artificial intelligence] chatbot. We then layer this on top of a point-based reward system that encourages users not only to engage with our educational content, but also take actions on the lessons learned,” he said.
“By saving money, sticking to a budget or even learning in “lesson,” our users are able to reward themselves through gift cards to popular services like DoorDash, Apple, Amazon and many more. MoneyUp has a unique business model that allows us to generate revenue through three different methods: interchange, trading fees and subscription fees.”
The company is well on its way, having already raised an angel round.
[Best Early-Stage Startup: VICI – Nicholas Sanker, Princeton University ($1,500)]
VICI is a software platform that empowers underserved athletes to become the best versions of themselves, founder Nicholas Sanker told the audience. Sports changed Sankar’s father’s life by giving him “the opportunity to be the first one in his family to ever attend university because of sports.” Sanker added that “it’s actually helped me become a proud member of the Princeton football family. … But too often high school athletes lack access to the resources and the training they need to make the most of this life-changing opportunity.”
He added that what is different today is that college athletes can get paid for their work in sports, which means that up to 50,000 athletes can use their talent to train high school students. Also, “recent developments in AI allow us to create online personalized training programs that are tailored to the specific needs of athletes in a way that we had not been able to in the past. So, how this works is that we connect high school athletes to college athletes for weekly training at high school facilities in the area.”
Sankar said that VICI has validated the market, and this spring, “we launched two pilot programs. … They helped us gain a lot of insights into our target customer, as well as marketing and partnerships that would be required to make this happen.” While the company has competition, it is primarily aimed at professional or near-professional athletes. “We want to bring professional training and development to high school athletes at an affordable price, and have them work with people who really understand and can empathize with them, having gone through the experience themselves recently.”
[Second Place Winner: One Stop Eco Shop – Brooke and Madison Loza, Seton Hall University ($1,500)]
The One Stop Eco Shop is a store and refillery, where consumers who are tired of all the waste in shopping can find hundreds of package-free food and home products. The store is open now, and located at 1174 Fischer Blvd., in Toms River.
“With the opening of our store, we will be the first sustainable grocery in New Jersey to accept food stamps,” the founders told the judges. This will be important for reaching low-income families who are often left behind by the sustainable movement.
The company is marketing to customers through social media — Facebook, Instagram, TikTok — as well as in person at farmers’ markets. With the opening of the store, the startup has three revenue streams: their online store, their storefront in Toms River and outreach at farmers’ markets. They will be hosting special events at the store. And, in the future, they hope to be able to franchise this model.
[Third Place Winner and Audience Choice Winner] Art for Hope Studio – Ashley Kulikowski, Rowan University ($1,000) and ($500)]
Art for Hope is a social enterprise, said founder Ashley Kulikowski. It is an art studio “specializing in addressing a rising mental health crisis” by giving hope while providing art classes for youth in need, she said.
“Our art one-on-one mentorships for kids and our mental health arts curriculum is currently being implemented within schools, K through 12,” she said. “Consider this: Students at an early age learn there are bumps in the road throughout life. Instead of turning to drugs or alcohol or harmful habits, our group studio provides a pathway and tangible tools to propel our youth forward, while improving test scores, reducing stress, building healthy relationships and having fun.”
Kulikowski added, “We have been successful in reaching our target market of women ages 18 through 60 with children in grades K through 12. We continue to reach out to our target market through social marketing, serving first and selling second.” She added, “Our success speaks for itself. A seven-year-old boy went from having severe anger-management issues to learning how to process his parents’ divorce and navigate ADHD through clay projects.”
The founder plans to seek seed funding for their business to expand into the B2B space by hosting corporate team-bonding events. “We have our first corporate team-bonding event this upcoming month with an engineering company in New Jersey” that wants to enhance its staff’s mental health and wellness, she noted.
Overall, the participants in UPitchNJ this year included student entrepreneurs from:
- Drew University
- Fairleigh Dickinson University
- Monmouth University
- New Jersey Institute of Technology
- Princeton University
- Ramapo College of New Jersey
- Rowan University
- Rutgers University–New Brunswick/Newark
- Seton Hall University