Connections

Student Entrepreneur Wins $5,000 for ProposalStudent Entrepreneur Wins $5,000 for Proposal
Business Idea Competition is first step for three start-ups.

The a-ha moment for Business Idea Competition winner Shanshan Mei ’14 came in the entrepreneurial competition’s first workshop.

During a discussion about how to brainstorm an idea, Mei was cleaning her dusty laptop screen, using the tail of her raccoon plush pencil case:

"Then I suddenly realized this is a good idea, because everybody’s laptop gets dusty, and to most people, the way to clean it is by wiping the screen with their sleeves."

And Mei had her idea for a product: a portable screen cleaner for mobile electronics that’s functional and fashionable.

Hers was one of three winning entries in the School of Business’ first Business Idea Competition. Initiated by entrepreneur Chris Burch ’76, the competition offered $25,000 in prize money to the 12 teams that reached the final round. Each winning team received $5,000 in prize money. The other nine teams received lesser amounts. And each of the 12 final teams is eligible to apply for $5,000 more in seed money to start up their business.

In addition to Mei the other winners were:

  • Justin Lee ’13 and Michael Wehrhahn ’13 for their web service RevoPT
  • Adiba Afros ’12, Martin Cerny ’14, Adeesha Ekanayake ’14 and Morgan Lemke ’14 for their software traceIT

The competition began in mid-September with the first of five weekly workshops on brainstorming an idea and preparing to present it in a four-minute pitch to judges. Twenty-four teams entered the first round, in late October.

The 12 finalists presented to a panel of three judges two weeks later. Teams again made a four-minute pitch and answered questions for an additional four minutes.

The judges included Burch, chairman of J. Christopher Capital, co-founder of the Tory Burch fashion line and an investor in technology and luxury brands; Gregory J. Hartz, president and CEO of Tompkins Trust Co.; and Jennifer Tegan, partner and owner of Cayuga Venture Fund.

"Regardless of whether it was a digital or physical product, the winning presentations delivered innovations with its customer at the heart. Each winner had spent time understanding his or her customers and their needs," said Burch.

He said the winning presentations offered "disruptive ideas that can scale. The presentations had to be comprehensive in scope and outline a product or concept that connected with its target customer."

Mei, a native of Nanjing, China, is journalism major with a minor in writing in the Park School of Communications.

Her product started as a plush toy screen cleaner (“like a SpongeBob with a microfiber cloth in the back”), but she discounted that after research showed a Japanese company with a similar concept not yet targeted to the American market. She then researched Burch and the products he develops, learning how highly he values design.

"I agree with him completely – whatever is on the market, they are ugly. So I shifted my focus to design and subsequently changed my market to higher-class people," Mei said.

She has given her own name to her product, calling it "Mei." She describes it as low-cost, high-profit and aimed at a market that hasn’t been developed.

Her four-minute presentation included a video and handmade prototypes.

Drawing from her Visual Journalism class and using the Final Cut Pro video editing application, Mei produced a 47-second video to demonstrate the inadequacies of current screen cleaners. (See the video here: http://youtu.be/L-zWlD2E9Hk)

"Instead of verbally distributing the problems with a language that I’m still not perfectly fluent in, I’d rather using something innovative and interesting," she said.

“Mei is really about all about design," she continued.

"I’ve been working really hard on making it special, yet practical enough that when people saw my product, they would be attracted by its look first, then amazed by how practically useful it is – like people’s reaction to Apple products. I don’t want ‘Mei’ to be a piece of useless, beautiful crap."

The three judges rated each idea in specific categories.

"There were numerous ideas that could have won and are likely viable business ideas," said Hartz. To him, the winning teams demonstrated a clear marketability of their product or service, the ability to differentiate from the competition and a well thought-out business plan.

For Tegan, the winners "had creative ideas/solutions to real problems and needs in the market, and the idea was compelling enough to make us believe that it was a solution that could really win."

The competition was open to all Ithaca students.

"This cross-fertilization of ideas and people is exactly what we are hoping to achieve with IC 20/20, the College’s strategic vision," said School of Business Dean Mary Ellen Zuckerman. "Such interdisciplinary activities promote creativity and innovation, which are at the heart of entrepreneurship."

Lee and Wehrhahn are fifth-year physical therapy majors in the School of Health Sciences and Human Performance. Their RevoPT website will allow physical therapists to record personalized rehabilitation videos and track when clients have viewed them. They had the concept in mind when they started the workshops.

"Our key element was just being prepared," said Lee.  "If we didn't get first place, we wanted to make sure it was because someone else just had a better idea, not that our idea lacked preparation."

The third winner, traceIT, is a cell phone application allowing users to scan a bar code and learn if the product was produced in a socially ethical way or contains ingredients that are deemed a health risk.

Afros is a business administration major.  The other team members are students in the School of Humanities and Science, with Ekanayake and Lemke computer science majors and Cerny an expoloratory major.

Burch, whose business career began when he sold sweaters on campus as an undergraduate, wanted to stimulate innovative thinking among a new generation of entrepreneurs.  He said the results exceeded his expectations.

"Ithaca's students are diverse and impressive group, engaged in their community and not defined by their curriculum," Burch said.  "It is critical that today's Ithaca students are still great risk-takers, willing to push themselves in new directions."

Competition administrators Tom Schryver and Brad Treat designed a follow-on course this Spring called Ideas Into Action, where student entrepreneurs can continue to develop their business.

 


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