Tom Wisniewski said he was simply there doing his job.
“My job is to get to know everyone out there who is or is aspiring to be an entrepreneur — especially the successful ones,” he said. “As someone who has launched a $50 million venture fund and accelerator in Newark, who spends a lot of time thinking about that business climate here in New Jersey, I know that, even if we can all spin a good story about awesome it is, it takes a lot of hard work to be an entrepreneur.
“But the good news is that college kids are becoming entrepreneurs now, which wasn’t necessarily happening much a decade ago.”
Wisniewski, managing partner at Newark Venture Partners, delivered a keynote to more than 100 college and university students, professors, business owners and potential investors at the third annual UPitchNJ contest, a statewide collegiate business model competition held on Friday at Montclair State University with support and sponsorship from the New Jersey Collegiate Entrepreneurship Consortium.
“UPitchNJ showcases the best and brightest young entrepreneurs from all over the Garden State,” Dennis Bone, founding director of the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship at Montclair State University, said. “When a company decides to relocate to New Jersey or remain in the state, one of their top criteria is the Garden State’s well-educated workforce, especially people who possess innovative problem-solving skills. These students are excellent examples of that.”
The competition not only was intended to showcase the already-budding entrepreneurship on New Jersey college campuses, but to provide students seeking to launch their own startups with a forum to help pitch and market their businesses to early investors.
Students and teams from 14 New Jersey colleges and universities competed Friday to win cash prizes and coaching sessions from top business educators around the state. They were judged on the innovativeness of their ideas, the quality of their written executive summaries and oral presentations, how well they considered or implemented further marketing and product development, and the potential of their ideas to become viable, profitable businesses with significant social values.
The judges included: Jessica Gonzalez, founder and CEO of InCharged, a manufacturer of mobile charging stations in Newark; S. Philip Kennard, CEO of Futurestay, an online vacation rental management system in Somerset; Elizabeth Vilchis, founder and CEO of LatinoTech, an entrepreneurial organization in New York City dedicated to strengthening Latino leadership in technology; Eduardo Villa, tax partner at Ernst & Young; and Kimberly Weisul, editor-at-large at Inc.com.
The first-place prize of a PNC Bank-sponsored $2,000 cash influx and coaching sessions with Mario Casabona, founder of TechLaunch, a business accelerator in Kinnelon, and with David Sorin, managing partner at McCarter & English, went to the team of LivingWaters from Rutgers University.
“Lack of public water-related infrastructure spending has forced many families to source water from unsafe locations or from water tanker mafias,” Shrey Ghate, a senior in the school of engineering at Rutgers University, said.
LivingWaters therefore developed a lightweight, low-tech, do-it-yourself, cost-effective and zero-energy system to capture, filter and store safe-to-drink rainwater to hydrate those within international water-stressed zones.
“The simple setup, which can be retrofitted upon any kind of housing structure, whether that be a tent or something more permanent, empowers people to take control and responsibility of their water,” Jane Peterken, a senior in the school of engineering at Rutgers University, said. “This system can provide up to 35 percent of a family’s drinking water, which meets the United Nations requirement of 10 to 12 liters per day.”
“The rainwater harvesting market currently consists of technologies which range from $3,000 to $7,000, often requiring intensive manual installations,” Joshua Kao, a junior in the school of business at Rutgers University, said. “Our system will retail in its first year for $14.”
The team intends to pilot the program in rural parts of India while sourcing materials from New Delhi.
Vilchis asked the team whether they already had partnerships in place.
The second-place prize of $1,000 and coaching sessions with the New Jersey Innovation Institute at New Jersey Institute of Technology and with the New Jersey Tech Council went to Mark Anthony Quiles, a senior studying business administration at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and his business, League of Lifeguards.
“We aim to connect consumers and businesses to lifeguards and swim instructors nearest to them,” Quiles said. “While we are competing with pool management companies, lifeguard certification providers and swim schools, we differ in that we take all three of those services and combine them into one platform.”
Though the mobile application will not be released until next month, Quiles, a lifeguard and Red Cross-certified instructor himself, said he made $10,000 last year alone with his business, guarding the lives of more than 10,000.
“We’re now looking to hire and are able to offer above the industry-average wages of $10 per hour,” he said. “
League of Lifeguards provides consumers with the ability to hire local certified lifeguards and swim instructors for pool parties, events, businesses and more at the cost of around $30 per hour. The company also provides those interested in becoming lifeguards with access to affordable certification programs. League of Lifeguards will take one-third of those profits, while the other two-thirds will pay employees.
Villa asked Quiles if he had a plan to combat the business’ inherent seasonality.
“We will have surge charges for popular days, such as July Fourth weekend,” Quiles said. “Our employees also realize that the jobs that they receive will be flexible and will act as independent contractors.”
Montclair State University students Iffat Siddiqi, a junior computer science major, and Sirawar Matin, a sophomore athletic training major, brought home both the third-place and audience choice awards, earning $500, a coaching session with entrepreneur David Stengle, director of Startup Grind in Princeton, and a $100 Starbucks gift card.
“We’re sweeping the nation with our feet!” Siddiqi said.
Their company, NeatSweeps, manufactures themed slippers that use free, augmented-reality, interactive mobile applications, and disposable cleaning pads to entice children to help out with chores around the house.
“Imagine coming home from a long, hard day at work, and your house is a mess while your kids are playing on their cell phones,” Matin said. “You may not be able to get the phone out of their hands, but, with us, you won’t have to.
“Your kids will be able to slide around the house, eliminating dust bunnies in real life and on their phones, while also being able to learn letters, numbers, shapes and more.”
By manufacturing overseas, the patent-pending slippers will cost under $6 to make and will retail for $19.99, Siddiqi said.
Gonzalez, a mother of a 15-month-old, asked the team whether they would consider expanding to folding laundry or washing dishes after kids have conquered cleaning the floors.
“We intend to scale the product lines while focusing on fitness, education and cleanliness,” Matin said.
Kennard said he was most impressed with the solid foundation of friendship the team had developed over the past 15 years.
“Your presentation really showed how much you two trust each other and work well together,” Kennard said. “It is really important for potential investors to understand how well you can get along with your co-founders.”
Last, but certainly not least, the $1,000 Best Early-Stage Startup Award — plus a coaching session with Greg Olsen, entrepreneur-in-residence at Princeton University — went to Ethan Dowie, president of Dowie Corp. and junior at Rider University.
“Fundraisers nowadays tend to focus so much on raising money for their causes that the events themselves tend to lose excitement,” Dowie said.
Dowie said he took it upon himself to create a nonprofit organization that would host unique athletic events throughout the year to help raise money for children with cancer by targeting celebrity athletes and those serious about athleticism to create highly competitive sporting events for substantial prizes donated from professional sports organizations.
Profits from the first three events planned for 2018 will be donated to Sunrise Day Camp in Pearl River, New York, a free summer camp for children with cancer and their siblings.
“Our first event, an all-events track meet, will take place on June 23, with the goal of donating at least $6,500 to the cause,” Dowie said. “The next event after that will be a dodgeball tournament with completely different athletes.”
Dowie said he will start by targeting small businesses in Rockland County, New York, to sponsor the events for advertising.
“The more they pay, the more advertising they receive,” he said.
Weisul asked how and when he would be able to pay himself.
“I will be making a profit for every event but will be reinvesting it into Dowie Corp. to fund the next,” Dowie said. “As the events grow, so will my salary, as well as the size of the events. Eventually, I would like to hold events throughout all of New York at much larger scales.”
Kennard said he saw massive potential in this idea.
“With the right partners, this concept of having charity-based competitive sports meets in different cities is something I would imagine would be scalable, especially with celebrity participation,” he said.
Weisul agreed, stating that Dowie was focusing too narrowly on his markets.
“Think bigger,” she said. “Don’t just think New York — think, the country.”
While 10 teams went home without a monetary reward, their business ideas may yet become viable companies in New Jersey:
- Service Animal Advocacy Group, an educational organization designed to help both business owners and disabled users navigate the laws regarding service animals, was developed by students at Drew University;
- Aaron Jasper, a Master of Business Administration student at William Paterson University, developed Angry Fish Tackle, a new and innovative type of fishing lure, after having already spent a decade in the fishing industry;
- Tailored, an early-stage, algorithmic-based mobile application designed to learn about users and make choices for them regarding local business purchases, was developed by students at Ramapo College;
- Students at Stevens Institute of Technology developed an innovative and faster live-streaming video solution for the internet called BlinkCDN;
- MYXR, a mobile application designed for entertainment professionals to help streamline vendor and guest participation, was designed by students at Monmouth University;
- Fairleigh Dickinson University students created Park With Me, a location-based mobile application designed to allow hosts to rent out and reserve their parking spaces for other users;
- Anthony Tavares, a sophomore at Saint Peter’s University, already has been running his unique and rare clothing resale company, Since91 Clothing;
- Rowan University students developed Topos Teas, a new brand of healthy, organic iced and hot teas;
- Madison Schott, a senior at Seton Hall University, created Trenditure, a mobile applicated designed to recommend books based on trending topics;
- And students from Princeton University developed BlockX, an organization which builds decentralized web applications to help users reclaim their privacy and data on the internet.