Students Representing NJ Colleges Pitch Business Ideas at UPitch

Photo: Pedul, from Rutgers, received the top prize at UPitch 2017. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Pedul, from Rutgers, received the top prize at UPitch 2017. | Esther Surden

Princeton University hosted the second annual UPitch competition this April, featuring presentations from student teams representing 13 New Jersey colleges and universities. Tech solutions were heavily represented, and has highlighted all of the teams  below.

The first-place winner was PeduL, from Rutgers University. It’s an online platform “at the intersection of crowdfunding and educational cost” offering a secure way for students to raise funds for their higher education. Presenter Kayla Jackson said that the company that “operates between the difficult-to-navigate process of applying for traditional scholarships and the difficult process of applying for loans.” She added, “We can help the 10.9 million students each year who apply for financial aid.” Students don’t just raise money from friends and family, she noted. They can also get awards from corporations through the PeduL platform.

Photo: Colin Lualdi presented SignSchool for Princeton. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Colin Lualdi presented SignSchool for Princeton. | Esther Surden

The second-place winner was SignSchool, from Princeton University, an online video-based platform that helps people learn American Sign Language. Colin Lualdi, representing SignSchool, noted that many online platforms that help English speakers learn ASL are in a dictionary format, “making learning convoluted.” Other vocal apps have “rudimentary” content, he said. And some offer static images or ask users to use DVDs. “But how many people have DVD players anymore?” he asked. “Our modular curriculum allows users to master the ASL they need. ” SignSchool has already released its beta version, and has two paying customers. One is an online university that will deliver the curriculum to its students. 

The third-place winner was Trend Pie, from Seton Hall University. An established digital media startup, Trend Pie hires influencers to communicate with their followers on Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. The presenter was founder Victor Ricci, a senior. He explained that the startup’s purpose is to solve the pain points in influencer marketing. Brands are overpaying, and are not getting measurable results. Moreover, “there is no security for the influencers or for the brand.” Ricci said that his idea was to manage the entire process, come up with a low-cost campaign solution, offer immediate metrics and manage all of the influencers. “We are able to do this bigger and better because we pay our influencers before the campaign ever gets started.”

Photo: Trend Pie's founder Victor Ricci presents for Seton Hall. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Trend Pie's founder Victor Ricci presents for Seton Hall. | Esther Surden

Two non-tech companies also received prizes. The Audience Choice award went to the Buzz, a mead-infused antioxidant health drink presented by Rachel Catena, from Fairleigh Dickinson University. The Best Early Stage Startup winner came from Montclair State University.  Presenting for the company, Elaion, were Kristen Martinelli, Alexis Johnson and Sophie Kunert. Elaion offers a holistic tattoo aftercare solution.

The event also featured a keynote speech by Eric Schurenberg, president and editor-in-chief of Inc. magazine, who knows a little something about entrepreneurs, after having interviewed so many of them.

“Entrepreneurship appears to be something that is in people’s blood because, of our Inc. 5000 honorees, three quarters of them are on at least their second company,” he said. In fact, about 80 percent of the honorees themselves agreed that entrepreneurship was in their blood. Schurenberg added that he thought it was literally in their DNA. When “we asked them if they had family members who were entrepreneurs, 63 percent of them said ‘yes.’”

Photo: Eric Schurenberg, president and editor-in-chief of Inc. magazine Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Eric Schurenberg, president and editor-in-chief of Inc. magazine | Esther Surden

Asked why they would want to take a path that was so hard, many entrepreneurs replied that they wanted to be in charge of their own destiny. Almost no one answered that they wanted to be an entrepreneur “because I wanted to get rich.”

It’s not something you want to take on all by yourself, however. You need to have a partner you can share with, someone you can share responsibilities with, Schurenberg advised.

Also, “the idea you start with in many entrepreneurial endeavors is not the one you finish with.”

Schurenberg concluded by wishing the students good luck and urging them to “be brave, take risks, be determined and keep focus on the business.”

Judging the pitches were Cheryl Biron, Principal, LexaGen Freedom Accelerator, also president and CEO, One Horn Transportation; Toby Dattolo, Senior VP, Fownders; Jo-Ann Rolle, Ph.D, dean of the Medgar Evers College School of Business (C.U.N.Y.); Sanjay Macwan, founder and CEO, Integer1, and former CTO, NBC Universal/Media Labs; and David Sorin, partner and co-chair of  the Venture Capital and Emerging Growth Companies practice, McCarter & English. They were introduced by Jim Barrood, president and CEO of the New Jersey Tech Council.

Barrood said that the judges were to rate the students on originality, idea credibility, potential profitability and the team’s ability to execute.

The entry from William Patterson University was Brainify, presented by Anthony Ferraiolo and Brian Potoczak. It’s an automated learning application created by students for students. “Our mission at Brainify was to create a platform that integrates into students’ lives and gives them material that they can study, anywhere any time.” The application was based on the principle that if “you expose yourself to the material on a higher frequency, you can retain 30 percent more of the material than traditional cramming.” The judges wanted to know if there were any intellectual property issues, and how the group would be getting the content and verifying it.

The entry from St. Peters University was called “Social Throne,” and the audience was quite amused at the concept. Social Throne is a marketplace that connects people who have bathrooms to people who need them, said presenter Devin Varela. This is especially beneficial for germaphobes who don’t want to use public restrooms.

Elementary Robotics, the team from The College of New Jersey, wants to get elementary school kids excited about STEM through an afterschool program they’ve developed. The team consisted of Sarah Sleiman, Dominic Clark, Megha Rathi and Skyler Maxwell. “Students will learn how to build and program their very own robot while having fun,” and then showcase their creations in competitions, said one of the presenters. The company has already beta tested its program. “We are currently working with two school districts, South Plainfield and North Brunswick, to implement a robotics experience.”

Ephraim Russo, the presenter from Stevens Institute of Technology, introduced VentureMe, an app that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to find out what the user would like to do, and what those closest to the user would like to do, “so you can have plans already made before you even take your phone out of your pocket. …We actually curate hundreds of plans in the New York City area, already made for you to enjoy.” The app, which is available at the App Store, integrates Apple Pay, so “now you can have Friday night plans already paid for.”

PROFInstruments, presented by Alexander Wildgoose, Vanessa Rodriguez, Ishraqul Wara and Justin Kerr, of Rowan University, developed a highly portable, flexible and user-friendly material-testing platform to serve the STEM education communities and small businesses. The goal of Ramapo College’s entry, Nanovations, is to create cleaner and more sustainable electronic devices. It was presented by David Howard and Matthew Chiusano. Rider University’s entry, MJY Innovations, was presented by Michael Young. The company offers products that enable beverage consumers to create their own customized beverages based on their own preferences.

The last presentation came from the founders of Orca, a group scheduling platform from the New Jersey Institute of Technology.  The presenters, Mansha Kohli and Antonio Mistretta, used an example of a fraternity trying to find a time to meet with alumni mentors. “We asked one question, ‘When are you available to meet?’ Who knew that question would never find an answer?” To solve this problem, the presenters founded Orca. Orca allows people to coordinate their schedules with other people easily. The Orca founders have tested this concept with students at NJIT.

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