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Big checks, bigger opportunities for student entrepreneurs at New Venture Competition.

Pitch-perfect student startups

CMU’s annual New Venture Competition offers entrepreneurs advice, funding for ideas

Contact: Ari Harris

​"The lights were bright, the crowd was huge, and I basically forgot our entire two-minute pitch right before we went onstage."

That's how Bryan Caragay, a Central Michigan University senior majoring in computer science with a minor in entrepreneurship, remembers the moments before he stepped onstage at the 2017 New Venture Competition. He credits a teammate with helping him recover his confidence in the nick of time.

Their team, Scrappy Technologies, went on to pitch to the judges and walked away with $11,000 to build their mobile product, an app called Guarded Safety. They used the funding for marketing and user interface technology.

Caragay is looking forward to being a spectator today as more than 30 student teams compete in the "Shark Tank"-style main event, presented by the Isabella Bank Institute for Entrepreneurship in the College of Business Administration.

Practice pitching to the pros

Bruce Marble, executive director of the institute, said, "Our goal is to provide students with an experience that simulates the real-world process of entrepreneurs presenting their business concepts to early-stage investors."

With nearly $100,000 in cash prizes at stake, the student teams — four of them are profiled below — have great incentive to put time, energy and effort into making a great pitch. Sponsors like Automation Alley, Spectrum Health Innovations and Foster Swift provide much of the prize money for winning teams.

Beginning eight months ago, students interested in the competition attended a series of focused workshops and mentoring sessions where they received guidance on topics such as customer discovery, developing a marketing strategy and early-stage legal issues. 

"There is no better environment to learn about building and growing a business," Megan Cavellier said. The senior fashion merchandising and design major had no prior experience with business concepts like writing a financial statement or marketing plan. She was nervous about entering her company, ReCover, into the competition.

Cavellier took the concept of hospital gowns for teens and built it into a business she hopes will appeal to patients, nurses and investors. Along the way, she and her team worked with faculty and staff to develop their business plan.

"The staff and mentors were always willing to help," she said. "I had people on all sides offering to meet with me and practice with me. If there was something I didn't understand, I was supported by people who could help. It was incredibly collaborative."

Mentors worked with students to develop and refine their presentations during the "Make a Pitch" competition in December and the "Pitch to the Pros" event in February.

Andy Fennell, director of finance for Dow Ventures and Business Development, served as both a keynote speaker and mentor for the practice events. He said it was an opportunity to work with students on a subject he's passionate about: venture investment.

"Students have a wonderful creativity. There is a freshness to their way of looking at the world. We are constantly looking for ideas and innovations for our business. Being out in the community and working with the university students is one of the ways we can connect with those new ideas," Fennell said.

Tabitha Haney, a senior majoring in entrepreneurship, will pitch a specialty dog food company in the competition. She has attended almost every workshop and taken advantage of all chances to practice her pitch.

"I'm trying to sell a product and a business model that are a little unusual. I needed help to consolidate a lot of necessary information into an incredibly short two-minute pitch. I have gotten terrific advice and guidance from the mentors in that regard," she said.

Building a better business

The New Venture Competition brings local and regional professionals to CMU to work with students as mentors and judges throughout the competition. Marble said more than 50 senior-level managers and executives from companies including The Dow Chemical Co., Isabella Bank and the Blue Water Angels Investment Network have participated this year.

Judges will rate student teams based on criteria including the quality of the idea, evidence of sufficient market research, sustainability of the financial model and the passion of the entrepreneurs. The team with the "best overall" venture receives a $30,000 prize to build its business.

To help the businesses thrive beyond the competition, this year CMU added a new NVC Summer Accelerator Award worth $15,000. One or two teams will win a six-week incubator experience that will supply legal services, on-campus workspace, a stipend for housing and meals, and additional mentoring sessions with New Venture Competition faculty, staff and volunteers.

"We want to continue to support the most committed teams and make sure they can continue the momentum they have built during the competition," Marble said.

The road ahead for entrepreneurs

Jared Weston, a 2013 entrepreneurship and business administration graduate, is reaping the success of his New Venture experience. His company, Earthworm Castings, now sells product at thousands of Home Depot and Walmart stores nationwide.

Weston continues to participate in the event as a mentor and reminds his student teams about the challenging road ahead for serious entrepreneurs.

"Be prepared to make a lot of sacrifices. Expect to put in tremendous amounts of sweat equity before bringing in any money," he tells them. "Their lives may become unbalanced and upside down – it may be a long and bumpy road.

"Just be smart and don't give up."

Ready, set, launch

The competition began with 33 teams and ended with just four teams in the final round of pitching. Elemental, with its thermal bra designed for breast cancer survivors, was the winner of the Best Overall Venture Award, which came with a check for $30,000 and one year of additional mentoring from the Blue Water Angels Mentoring program. Elemental was also one of two companies to win the new Summer Accelerator Award, which will provide the team with additional mentoring, cash prizes and in-kind services.
A full list of winners is available at the New Venture Competition website.

Here's a sampling of student business proposals in this year's New Venture Competition:


resizedrecover.jpgCavellier developed the idea for ReCover while working on her senior capstone project, researching the emotional effects of wearing a hospital gown.

"You can buy alternative hospital gowns for nearly every type of patient except for teenagers," she found. "Most gowns don't fit them, or they are designed for much older or younger patients."

Cavellier and her teammates, CMU students Jacob Garrison and Justin Glodich, saw an opportunity to meet a real need. ReCover gowns feature more functionality, with patterns and designs chosen specifically for teenage patients.

Drone the News

Graresizeddronethenews.jpgduate student Zachary Huffman relied on his background in aviation and his love for broadcast journalism to develop Drone the News. He offers drone license training, sales and technical support to broadcasting networks throughout the country.

Drone the News began as a concept for an entrepreneurship class within the broadcast and cinematic arts department. When Huffman received recognition for his idea at the National Association of Broadcasters PILOT innovation challenge, he decided to enter New Venture.

"It has been a great opportunity to network with industry professionals and gain real-world insight you wouldn't necessarily receive inside the classroom," he said of the competition.

Ignite Donuts

resizedignitedonuts.jpgDoughnut shop by day, doughnut bar by night. That was the concept CMU students Casey Croad, Alec Czarnopys and Jakob Muntz wrote into the business plan for Ignite Donuts.

Ignite would operate like a traditional doughnut shop in the daytime. But it would expand the typical hours of operation into the evening by offering drinks and savory options like doughnut pizza and doughnut grilled cheese.

"We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, but it has been one of the best decisions of our lives to commit to this competition," Croad said.


resizeALLYabroad.jpgCMU student Shannon O'Flynn's experience studying abroad led to the idea for ALLYabroad, a smartphone app travel companion for students. She was studying in England without an international cellphone plan and had a hard time getting critical information.

 The ALLYabroad app focuses on three key stress points for students: finances, culture shock and safety, she said.

"Studying abroad was a transformational experience, and I want all students to have that. I want them to feel safe, secure and confident in their travels."

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