Press-Republican

March 31, 2014

Young entrepreneurs pitch their dreams at PSU

Experts judge inventions, business plans

CHRIS FASOLINO
Press-Republican

PLATTSBURGH — It might be called the North Country’s version of “Shark Tank,” with college students presenting business plans, often based on inventions, to panels of judges in hope of prizes and funding.

The North Country Regional Business Plan Competition was held at Plattsburgh State’s Ausable Hall. It was co-hosted by the Reh Center for Entrepreneurship at Clarkson University. Congressman Bill Owens visited as keynote speaker

The first place winner in each category received $2,000; the second place winner received $1,000; and both will advance to the New York Business Plan Competition in Albany on April 25.

Each team of students had 10 minutes to present an idea. Then, they faced a five-minute question and answer session from the panel of judges.

Timing cues were provided for the students, with a green card indicating they had two minutes left; a yellow card indicating they had one minute left; and a red card indicating that their time was up.

SOURCES OF INSPIRATION

Students drew on many inspirations for their inventions and business ideas. Bryce Bandish of Clarkson pitched an idea that he first thought of as a child — inspired by the sometimes ferocious behavior of his cat.

“I was in fifth grade, and my mom used to make me give my small cat, Rudy, some flea medicine,” he recalled with a smile. “Like the football player from Notre Dame, Rudy was small, but he had a lot of fight.”

To administer the flea medicine without getting bitten, Bandish took some fabric from a costume and fashioned it into a device that would gently secure the cat. The next day, his mother sewed a professional version of the same idea, and the “Pet Pita” was born. Bandish has patented the invention, which he calls “a safe and easy way” to give medication to animals at home. He wants to sell it under the company name “Comfy Pets.”

For Plattsburgh State students Ryan Emmons and Anthony Pena-Nunez, inspiration came more recently. The business idea that they presented, “Delivery Mart,” would offer delivery of groceries to college students. Customers would be able to order items through an app. Emmons and Pena-Nunez proposed a flat rate of $8 per order in the hopes that low prices would lead to repeat customers.

However, like the other contestants they had to face the judge’s tough questions. The profitability of “Delivery Mart” was challenged — at least at the proposed rate of $8 per grocery order.

HIGH-TECH INGENUITY

Matthew Burke of Clarkson proposed an idea that he believes combines profitability with environmental benefits.

His proposal was called “Steam Engine Technology.” Introducing the idea to the judges, Burke said with a touch of humor, “You may have guessed by the name that we’re going to use a steam engine for something.” 

He went on to propose a method of converting sugar into ethanol — with a steam engine as part of the process. 

While many had looked to ethanol as an alternative to fossil fuels, inflation of food prices has been an unwanted result of ethanol production — since it is typically made from corn.

Using sugar instead of corn, Burke explained, would “minimize the impact on food supply.”

Burke hopes to raise capital by May, and then build and test a prototype by August. In the long run, he said, “Our strategy is to reinvest profits to fund further research and development.”

Another idea with social implications was offered by Clarkson students Erik Worden, Lauren Magin, Salvatore Riniolo and Lorraine Njoki. They appeared to be going back to basics — with an invention that Worden described as “a new method of boiling water.”

But it’s a method of boiling water that does not require electricity or fuel, relying instead on a rotary motor. The teammates believes this makes it ideal for developing regions, and hopes that it would lead to the wider availability of safe drinking water.

JUDGE’S PERSPECTIVE

“I think the judges have a hard job today,” said Erin Draper, director of the Reh Center for Entrepreneurship. She noted that there has been 30 percent growth in participation since last year’s competition.

The event is held annually at either Plattsburgh State or Clarkson University. “The partnership is what really makes it a successful event,” Draper said.

Mark Dzwonczyk, one of the judges, was impressed. “Every year either I’m getting older, or the entrepreneurs are getting younger — and very sophisticated.

“There are a couple of standouts where I’m saying, ‘That’s an interesting business.’ I live in Silicon Valley, so I’ve seen a lot of businesses start up, and I’ve built some myself.”

Dzwonczyk regularly travels from California to the North Country for his role as CEO of Nicholville Telephone Company, which is installing broadband to sections of rural New York. He mentioned that his own experience has taught him to be open-minded about new business ideas.

Dzwonczyk was in Silicon Valley during the early days of Internet, and he recalled hearing about the ideas of Larry Page, co-founder of Google, and Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo.

With a wry smile, Dzwonczyk said he recalled thinking: “Indexing the Internet — how is that a business?”

His conclusion? “You’ve got to think ahead.”

OWENS ON ENTREPRENEURSHIP

As presentations came to a halt for a lunch break, Congressman Owens addressed the crowd, referring to experience from his law practice in assisting businesses with patents, contracts and financing. He advised students to make sure that their ideas were marketable instead of just going by their own preferences. “It shouldn’t just be something I like, it should be something somebody else likes — and will buy.”

He also talked about what he called “figuring out how to share the upside,” so that if your ideas is successful, people who work for you will also benefit. “It makes for happier, better workers,” Owens said. “It’s important that people understand that you value what they do.”

He closed with a story of a White House event where he met the prime minister of Ireland, who shared this witty advice on speaking: “Stand up tall to be seen. Speak loudly to be heard. Sit down to be appreciated.”