INNOVATIVE TAKES ON OLD PROBLEMS
The ‘What’ and the ‘How’ are the staples of any new venture. Chances are, the ‘Why’ is the most interesting part of any startup story. Diran Shahrik’s journey started as a Boston University freshman. Watching his aunt bake a cake, he noticed she only used a third of one ingredient. The rest, he learned, would likely be tossed away. The incident inspired him to build Savor, a mobile app that uses food preferences, family size, and budget to create a s grocery list that minimizes waste.
“I find we…grow nonchalant when it comes to throwing away food,” Shahrik observes. “However, what we seem to forget is that it’s not simply just the food that we are wasting. The land that the food is grown on, the methane gas released from producing the food, and the water utilized to create food product is all wasted when we throw away food. I wanted to disrupt this pattern of food waste and make a serious worldwide impact.”
At Georgetown University, Stanford Maison discovered something unexpected. His female classmates distrusted dating apps because they were immersed in a “hypersexualized culture” where men often “were not transparent with their intentions.” After nearly 200 prospective customer interviews, Maison and his partner launched Blyss, a dating app that coordinated entire dates for users, creating a safe environment for everyone involved. In contrast, Anna Pedrick has seen the gender gap widen between men and women in STEM fields over the past two decades. This gap inspired her startup idea in her Entrepreneurship In Action course. Called Lovelace, Pedrick’s program ties arts and crafts to coding to expose young women to STEM concepts.
“Too many of my female peers never explored coding because they weren’t interested in robotics, gaming, or sci-fi when coding can be so much more than that,” Pedrick admits. “I wanted to create a company that shows girls that coding is more than it is stereotyped to be and can align with a lot of their interests. Through this, Lovelace reframes coding in young girls’ minds and shows them the potential opportunities that they too can be a part of.”
SOLVING A UNIVERSITY’S EVENT PROBLEM
Some startups were even inspired by issues faced by college students themselves. Exhibit A: The University of Virginia’s DoorList. Before it became a UVA phenom – think 5,000 users across 50 organizations – Doorlist was just a way to get around cumbersome wristbands and guest lists at university events.
“Wristbands cost money and must be distributed in-person, while guest lists are easy to bypass using a fake name and are very slow at the door,” explains co-founder Dave Roselle. “DoorList eliminates the need to make these tradeoffs – we set out to provide a solution that is fast at the door and significantly more convenient than any other option, while also saving organizations money and improving their environmental impact.”
Even more, Roselle adds, DoorList made the lessons from Professor Jeffrey Boichuk’s Marketing class all the more real – and applicable in real time. “The biggest lesson I gained from marketing class was to very intentionally craft a marketing message around the pain points of each stakeholder. For DoorList, this is applicable when we talk to event hosts versus event guests. For hosts, the value proposition is the money saved and the convenience while making a list, but for guests it’s that they don’t have to go pick up wristbands and can have all of their tickets in one place. Professor Boichuk’s marketing class helped us realize the need for varied messages and also taught us how to present these messages.”
COLLEGE FRESHMEN TOP MBAs TO WIN WHARTON’S TOP PRIZE
The Wharton School’s Aravind Krishnan has been working on his startup, ToxiSense, since the 8th grade. On a field trip to the Jersey shore, he learned horseshoe crabs – a crucial part of the Atlantic Coast ecosystem – were being “overharvested towards extinction.” The reason: their blood is a key ingredient in most medical product tests ranging from medical devices to COVID-19 vaccines. Just a gallon of horseshoe crab blood costs $60,000 according to Krishnan. In high school, Krishnan discovered that a plant, Arabidopsis thaliana, carried many of the same testing benefits as horseshoe crab blood – at a far lower cost. After tirelessly testing to produce the best endotoxin concentration, Krishnan arrived at Wharton to commercialize his discovering, recruiting three classmates to handle the business, science, and operations arms of his startup.
And the venture took off faster than anyone expected.
“Our biggest accomplishment has been receiving substantial backing both from the university and some tech-focused VCs, raising about $100K in just one semester,” Krishnan explains. “Among these, our greatest success was winning Venture Lab’s Startup Challenge competition. This is an annual event run by Venture Lab, which is the Wharton School’s entrepreneurship center, and offers over $150,000 in funding to successful Penn students. Despite being freshmen competing against a field of mostly MBA-led teams, we were able to win the Perlman Grand Prize (the top award), and several other awards. This win alone earned us $70,000 in funding and over $10,000 in additional in-kind sponsorships.”
STARTUP TOPS $2 MILLION IN REVENUE
ToxiSense isn’t alone in chalking up big wins. Just head over to Ann Arbor to meet Cameron Allen. Only a sophomore, Allen has generated over $2 million dollars in revenue over the past four-and-a-half years with his Beacon Book Box startup. An “avid reader”, Allen was enchanted by the idea of monthly deliveries of books and reading-related merchandise to consumer. After firing up Excel to calculate curation and startup costs, he sold his family on launching a business – even collecting a $10,000 loan from a family friend! While his firm’s ledger would the envy of any entrepreneur (or teenager), Allen believes his Beacon Book Box’s biggest assets are equally fundamental: a wide network and deep goodwill.
“I have worked with small businesses, individual artists from across the globe all the way up to #1 New York Times bestselling authors and executives in the Big Five publishing houses,” Allen points out. “These relationships did not form out of thin air, rather the effort and work I put into establishing them over the years. These individuals have shaped the growth of my business, and I will continue to partner with them on projects to come.”
Prospective partners are already lining up to work with this year’s Disruptive Business School Startups. FORENAIRE, an apparel line launched by Georgia Tech’s Aboubacar Barrie, snagged a $20,000 award by GUCCI. On top of that, Georgia Tech’s Create-X program gave FORENAIRE a %250,000 valuation. Success also made an impact on FINNIVA, a PropTech co-founded by Andrew McMaster at Indiana University’s Kelley School. The startup won the Elevate Nexus Southern Regional Pitch Competition, the Crossroads Collegiate Competition, and the “Best Overall Venture Plan” at IU’s Spine Sweat Experience too. From these efforts, the team came away with an unexpected epiphany.
“Elevate wasn’t just for college students,” McMaster notes. “A real investment team saw this solution as a scalable, viable, investable business. After that, things got really real for myself and the other two founders. It has forced us to shape up the edges and put 110% of ourselves into building Finniva.”
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
This summer, Dhanashree Mandhani was running a dozen events across India reaching 10,000 farmers – when she wasn’t busy onboarding 22 employees to Salam Kisan, that is. For her, the benefit of business education is this: “Everything I do in my business is tied to a concept I learned in class [and] everything I learn in class can be applied to some aspect of running a company.” That said, the University of Illinois senior learned that business school offers another unexpected benefit for student entrepreneurs: Friends in high places.
“I spoke to Dean Jeff Brown in November 2021 about my business plan, and he was kind enough to make multiple introductions,” Mandhani explains. “He introduced me to the startup ecosystem in UIUC and the Chicago area, connected me to Venture Capitalists, and other entrepreneurs and resourceful individuals. He also encouraged me to participate in iVenture Accelerator, an incubator for the top student startups at the University of Illinois. During the summer, I did participate in iVenture Accelerator, and Professor Noah Isserman and Director of iVenture Manu Edakara have been the two greatest mentors at UIUC. They help me navigate management and leadership as well as inspire me to set goals both personal and professional and achieve them.”
Even more, being a business student and novice entrepreneur can open doors. Just ask. At Northeastern University, he started BOOST2GO, an all-natural energy drink that relies on the Amazon’s Guayusa Leaf – which carries a greater potency than green team. Initially, Serrano assumed that he couldn’t get an audience with one of his heroes, Santiago Peralta – a famed chocolatier in his native Ecuador. Turns out, Peralta was as interested in hearing from a college student as a world leader.
“When he received me in his office, he was so curious in learning from me and would attend any event I told him I needed his help,” Serrano tells P&Q. “Even when I was at an event at the World Trade Organization, he helped me in a matter of minutes by putting me in contact with an Ecuadorian diplomat to assist me.”
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