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Aspiring Inventors and Entrepreneurs Nurtured by the University’s Innovation Ecosystem
Students from across the University of New Haven reflect on their experiences participating in the Alvine New Venture Pitch Competition, an interdisciplinary initiative supported by the University’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation program.
May 23, 2018
By Jackie Hennessey, contributing writer
It was the day after the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting and Nathan DeRita ’20 and Merranda Zehner ’20 were sitting in their residence hall, watching the news unfold. DeRita said, "We have to do something."
So the two criminal justice majors got to work developing Locker Buddy, an app that, with the click of a button, would provide emergency services personnel a student’s exact location, a description of the threat, and live stream video and audio, eliminating the need to actually talk with emergency personnel and reducing emergency response time.
The duo of DeRita and Zehner was one of 12 teams participating last month in the final round of the Alvine New Venture Pitch Competition. Each group made a five-minute presentation and responded to questions from a panel of judges that included alumni and local business executives. More than 150 people, including Robert Alvine, a University benefactor and former chair of the University’s Board of Governors who helped conceive the program, packed the University’s Orange Campus for the final round of pitches.
The competition began in February with close to 60 participants comprising 34 teams, undergraduate and graduate students from 25 majors taking part, vying for $10,000 in seed money to help move their ideas forward. Over three months, they took part in workshops on entrepreneurship, the innovation canvas, sales and marketing, revenue-generation models, and intellectual property identification and protection, all while honing their ideas.
"We have actively worked to engage professional partners, alumni, and faculty to help mentor and guide our students. This is truly a collaborative effort that is creating transformational learning opportunities for our students."
College of Business Dean Brian Kench
DeRita and Zehner took first place and a $5,000 prize, which Zehner said they’ll use to start developing the app. "We really want it to make an impact," she said. "We couldn’t be happier."
She was quick to note there was another equally important win: the innovation process itself. "We learned so much about what it takes to turn an idea into something real," she said. "So many times we’d have to work around a problem, then work around another. We’d take two steps back and another one forward."
Many of the finalists said their ideas began with a problem they felt they had to solve, one they puzzled over and pushed at. Mechanical engineering graduate students Surya Teja Vadali ’20 M.S. and Malak Souissi ’19 M.S. worked to develop a thermal battery to extend the driving range of electric cars.
Rebecca Sola ’20 and Rachel Kinney ’19, hospitality and tourism management majors who love to travel, got their idea after observing luggage forever getting lost and travelers navigating busy airports with their suitcases.
"We want to help the mom with a squirming toddler and the grandparent who was thinking about not traveling anymore because it was getting so hard to pull a suitcase along," Kinney said
They conceived the Self-Roll Tracker, a hard-shell four-wheel piece of self-moving luggage connected to an app. "It has a built in-tracker so you can see where your luggage is at all times," Sola said. After placing third, they’re already planning next steps and are hoping to collaborate with students from the Tagliatela College of Engineering to develop the app.
That kind of collaborative spirit was evident throughout the competition. Onoh Udensi ’21, a marketing major, had decided not to attend college right after high school. Instead, he created an e-commerce drop-shipping platform so he could fund an app he was developing. BrightBus would allow students – who were often missing the school bus – to track their buses and earn points and incentives for attending school each day. During the competition, he noted how his app’s features and functions could complement those of Locker Buddy.
"But I realized I didn’t have the knowledge I needed to take the app further," Udensi said. He applied to the University and found a mentor in Brian Marks, executive director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program and a practitioner in residence in the Department of Economics and Business Analytics.
"I discovered a beautiful ecosystem of innovation here and students who want to improve themselves and create something completely new," said Udensi.