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Stories behind CMU's New Venture Competition

Five years of inspiring entrepreneurs, building partnerships and boosting Michigan's economy

Contact: Heather Smith

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Since its inception in 2011, CMU's New Venture Competition has provided education and opportunity for hundreds of aspiring entrepreneurs, many of whom have gone on to run successful businesses in Michigan.

As the competition enters its fifth year, nearly 70 more will present their business ideas for a shot at more than $75,000 in seed money.

The New Venture Competition, led by the College of Business Administration's Isabella Bank Institute for Entrepreneurship, is a forum for learning, identifying, nurturing and showcasing emerging entrepreneurs and their businesses. This is done while supporting students in the process of creating and evaluating new business and social impact ventures.

The 2015 competition will take place Friday, March 27, in CMU's Education and Human Services Building. An awards event will follow in McGuirk Arena within the CMU Events Center.​ The event is free and open to the public.

Below are stories about current and past competitors, showcasing the impact and opportunity of the New Venture Competition. 

The business idea Central Michigan University students Zachary Foote of Mount Pleasant and Zachary Konarska of Grand Haven will present in this year’s New Venture Competition will be different from those of their competitors.

That’s because they’ve taken someone else’s idea and entered into a unique partnership to create a business out of it.

The product they will present is actually the idea of Robin Linton-Fisher, a CMU alumna and pediatric physical therapist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

Linton-Fisher had the idea to design a garment to help with the therapy for her patients with cerebral palsy. The garment would combine the functions of therapeutic taping and compression clothing — two methods currently used during therapy to influence certain muscles and muscle groups and to align bones and muscles. Her goals were to make a garment that would cost less and was easier to use and more comfortable.

Spectrum Health Innovations, a resource for the Spectrum Health system that helps to solve clinical problems through the development of new products and technologies for health care, brought the garment idea to a CMU entrepreneurship class. The team partners with outside organizations like CMU that have the resources for vetting, designing and launching business ideas.

Foote and Konarska were selected to work on the business aspect of Linton-Fisher’s project, and decided it was a great fit as a New Venture competitor.

“What the CMU students bring to the table is a fresh set of eyes and dedicated resources to really dig into this and see what the opportunities are,” said Scott Daigger, manager of innovation and entrepreneurship for Spectrum Health Innovations.

The student team has spent hours researching the industry, competitors, licensing, patents and more in order to present to the judges at the March 27 competition. They’ve worked closely with Spectrum along the way, particularly discussing licensing and ownership of the business.

“The partnership with Spectrum is building each day as we go; it is really a unique situation we’ve had an opportunity to take part in,” Foote said.

Spectrum Health Innovations, which looks to their resources to help commercialize ideas, has enabled Foote and Konarska to take this business and make a go of it.

“If the students at CMU, or other universities, have a passion for developing one of these ideas, we love that,” Daigger said. “If there’s a technology here we developed, and you think there’s potential, go forth, do great things, be successful. We’re behind you 100 percent.”

Seniors and mechanical engineering majors Nathaniel Slappey III from Detroit and Alexander Grabinski from South Lyon are banking on sweat to bring home the top prize at this year’s New Venture Competition.

Under the supervision of Tolga Kaya, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, the students designed and created a working prototype of HydroGuide, a wearable sweat sensor that can monitor a person’s hydration levels by measuring the amount of salt in their sweat. Kaya was inspired to create a sweat-sensing device after working on other biological sensors and being approached by soldiers and athletes who expressed an interest in his research. They shared with him their need for a similar device to measure hydration levels faster than the current, slower methods of drawing and analyzing blood that are not optimal in often less than ideal field conditions.

“We invented this device with the goal of helping athletes and soldiers enhance their performance by monitoring their hydration status in real time,” Kaya said. “Injuries on the field can potentially be minimized if coaches and commanders have a faster, accurate way to watch for dehydration.”

The hydration levels of a HydroGuide wearer can be monitored remotely.

“For example, an athlete will wear the HydroGuide, which is similar to a FitBit or a Nike Fuel Band, during practice or competition,” Slappey said. “It will collect their sweat, monitor salt levels and then wirelessly transmit readings via Bluetooth to a trainer’s smartphone or tablet on the sidelines.”

Slappey hopes to pursue an MBA and work in sales in the automotive industry. He said that the New Venture Competition has given him an edge heading into graduate school.

“The New Venture Competition has taught me a lot, especially in terms of team dynamics,” Slappey said. “This particular idea and product has been two years in the making. Last year we had three engineers, a communication major and an information technology major on the team and three different agendas at every meeting. The experience has taught me that you have to be compatible to get things done and sometimes you can’t have everything go your way.”

According to Grabinski, this is the first real-time hydration-monitoring device of its kind.

“No one has anything like this on the market,” Grabinski said. “There are sweat patches that can be worn during exercise that collect sweat to be measured afterwards, but this is the first monitoring device that collects sweat and measures it in real time.”

Grabinski, who has been offered a position in the Ford College Graduate program after graduation from CMU, said his independent research project studying microfluidics and hydration analysis with Kaya and his participation in the New Venture Competition have been instrumental in preparing him for his career.

“The New Venture Competition has taught me how to take an abstract idea and implement it into real life, along with the process involved in making a marketable product,” Grabinski said. “Anyone looking for a fruitful experience at CMU should definitely check out this opportunity. You will learn a lot, meet a variety of people and be light years ahead of the competition when you get to your job.”

The HydroGuide team won the CMU New Venture Pitch Competition and $500 and is now in the running for the statewide New Venture Competition — and $30,000 to start their own company — on March 27.

“I’m excited for the competition and we’re in it to win it,” Slappey said.

For Central Michigan University senior Chris Repyak, coffee roasting runs in the family.

Repyak grew up in a family of coffee roasters and decided to pursue his family's passion by starting a wholesale coffee roasting company, Homecrest Coffee Roasters, with his business partner Dennis Nalor. The pair is preparing to pitch their company to judges in the 2015 CMU New Venture Competition, and they have some experience under their belts. The young entrepreneurs also participated in the competition in 2014 — bringing home $10,000 by being named the Best Lifestyle Venture.

This time they hope their business will receive $30,000 by being named the best overall venture — and they already know what they would do with that money.

"One of the reasons we were named Best Lifestyle Venture last year was because we had established a strong company that could thrive on a small scale," Repyak said. "This time around, I am trying to show that we are willing to grow, franchise and license."

Homecrest Coffee Roasters buys green beans directly from coffee farms, roasts them to produce unique and flavorful roasts, and wholesales the final product to coffee houses and beer breweries around Michigan. Repyak originally intended the Portage-based business to stay small, wholesaling the product only to local farmers markets. His success in CMU's New Venture Competition, however, has driven the expansion of the roasting company.

The first competition experience and a summer internship at his family's roasting business have inspired Repyak to think outside the box. He has implemented new business tactics, such as selling to beer breweries, improving pitching methods and better roasting techniques. After better developing his business model, using his prize money to invest in a new roaster and testing his new techniques, Repyak feels prepared to face this year's competition.

"I'm going to take what I learned last year and apply it to the business this year. Plus, I have more confidence going in to the competition this time around,” Repyak said. “I hope to win the $30,000 first-place prize. “Even if I don't, I know I have gained incredible experience and still have a successful company."

Central Michigan University alumnus Andrew Russo has given new meaning to living out of your parents’ basement. For Russo, a 2014 graduate, it was a strategic business move.

Russo is running his entire apparel business, Gone Beachin’, out of his parents’ home in Grandville.

Russo and his business partner, Dustin Cronkright, began the company in 2013 with one design they had printed on 300 T-shirts. A graphic design major at CMU, Russo had heard about CMU’s New Venture Competition and decided to participate in an effort to help them grow their business. For his small startup, this decision was the right one.

Participation in the New Venture Competition provided the business owners with vital knowledge they needed to create different parts of their business. That knowledge also was helpful in pitching their business idea and plan to the judges, who gave the team the “Spirit of Entrepreneurship” award and 2nd runner-up in the pitch category.

Funding from the competition enabled Russo and Cronkright to purchase a screen print shop to expand their business. The screen print shop has enabled them to print a vast number of designs not only on T-shirts but other items such as water bottles, sunglasses and sweatshirts. Their Gone Beachin’ apparel was sold in three stores in 2014. This year, the merchandise will be sold in nine stores along the Michigan lakeshore.

Russo hopes continued success will enable them to get their own shop in the future.

Learn more about Gone Beachin’.

Erin Cross and Domonique Byrd bubbled with anticipation as they sat at a classroom table with a poised team of graphic designers. This was a big day for Cross and Byrd – an undergraduate health administration major and biology graduate student, respectively – who created the product AcneFix to enter in Central Michigan University’s New Venture Competition. They were seeing the final packaging and marketing material designs for the oral skin care beverage they were set to pitch at the annual event.

“Oh my goodness,” Cross, a Benton Harbor senior, said as she spun the fully designed four-ounce plastic bottle in her hands. “It looks amazing!”

Three other students watched with equal amounts of anticipation as Cross and Byrd enthusiastically pored through the mocked-up packaging, labels and logos.

This also was a big day for Laura Clift, Zachary Smith and Kellie Spanos, the team of graphic design majors who, along with teammate Nathan Kerinen, created the looks for AcneFix.

Clift, Smith and Spanos were doing some pitching of their own as they presented the pieces they crafted through months of creative collaboration between themselves and their clients.

“I can’t believe how it all came together,” said Clift, a senior from Brighton. “Seeing it all come to life makes me even more excited about doing this kind of work after college.”

The College of Business Administration's Isabella Bank Institute for Entrepreneurship leads the New Venture Competition as a forum for learning, identifying, nurturing and showcasing emerging entrepreneurs and their businesses. Such an event is open to students of all academic disciplines. There also is an agreement with the College of Communication and Fine Arts to have graphic design students available to design product logos, business cards, websites and commercial packaging.

Much of this is coordinated through the graphic design class “Design Bureau,” which Art and Design Professor David Stairs teaches. The class connects students with actual clients to develop and produce graphic solutions for a business or organization.

“Having this experience really helped me to see some of the issues and concerns I’ll have to address in the working world,” said Smith, a junior from Harrison, as he flipped through collections of his product sketches.

This big day started at a classroom table, but it quickly was transformed into a corporate conference table as the conversations about cost-saving measures and label appearances continued between the obviously satisfied AcneFix clients and undeniably proud graphic design team.

Talk about a real-world experience.

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