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Student-Led Teams Win Grand Prizes at Startup Weekend UConn

The participants received crash courses in getting a business off the ground.

The University of Connecticut's first Startup Weekend attracted talented men and women of all ages to the campus to accomplish a remarkable feat: turning the seed of a business plan into a viable company – in only 54 hours.

They had help - 20 mentors, entrepreneurs, graphic designers, software developers and other professionals from throughout the state. Some of these professionals helped design logos and build Web sites. Others critiqued business plans and challenged students to question and critique their own work.

The unique blend of ambition, education and kismet makes Startup Weekend unique among business plan competitions as attendees experience the trajectory of building a start-up company in microcosm by brainstorming, developing and pitching business plans - all in one weekend.

Those who attended the UConn conference - Connecticut’s third, following a Hartford and a New Haven convention - were each allowed 60 seconds to pitch a business plan early Friday evening, then vote on their favorite pitches. The entrepreneurs behind the 13 highest-ranked ideas formed teams with other attendees - many of whom they were meeting for the first time.

Immediately after coming together, the teams began preparing for the final competition - five minutes to pitch their business plan to a panel of judges.

Mentors spent Friday night, Saturday and most of the day Sunday meeting with each of the 13 groups, offering their expert advice. Teasing out the perfect business model required a lot of back-and-forth discussion between the mentors and team members.

UConn students won two of the three grand prizes for ideas including Sobrio, an application that connects intoxicated students with sober drivers, and Platforum, a mobile forum-consolidation app.

Andrew Jorgensen, a UConn senior who worked on Platforum, said that the mentors helped them consider other options that helped make their product more efficient.

“You always have to attack a problem from every possible angle and it's really important to take in other peoples perspectives,” Jorgensen said.

“There was a lot of practicing that went on. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes work, getting those numbers, getting verification,” Hemal Shah, the creator of Platforum, said.

On Sunday night, each of the 13 groups had five minutes to pitch their idea to a panel of five judges - including Kevin Bouley, the president and CEO of Tolland-based Nerac, Inc., and Mary Anne Rooke, director of the Technology Incubation Forum at UConn’s Avery Point campus.

Shah began his pitch with a question.

“Raise your hand if you’ve ever done a google search to find an answer to your problem,” Shah, said.

Every hand in the audience went up.

He then went on to explain that for every question typed into google, three of the top four results are forums - online communities where experienced users answer questions posed by novices.

Shah then outlined his company’s plan: to aggregate about 200,000 of the most highly-trafficked forums and make them accessible through a user-friendly mobile app interface.

The judges’ immediately zeroed in on the financial details, asking Shah to clarify how much money he expected the venture to earn - and how quickly he expected it to break even.

Each grand prize winner received $250 and the promise of server space and hardware from Softlayer, a company that provides Internet hosting. The winners can use this server space to host their Web sites and their company servers.

Shah said he is already planning to continue with Platforum, and had begun securing partners and investors.

Two other UConn students, Mike Parelli and Adam Boyajian, pitched an idea called Busses2, a company that began when the pair and some friends booked a fleet of buses to carry UConn students attending the electronic music festival Dayglow to and from the XL Center.

That first event was a success - but it required a lot of legwork.

“We were handing out wristbands in the library - we were stuffing cash into envelopes,” Parelli said.

Busses2 is already planning to sell bus tickets to Rutgers University students for an upcoming concert. 

Eric Knight, the founder of Remarkable Technologies and one of the organizers of Startup Weekend UConn, said that providing guidance to talented young people is a personal priority - which is why he volunteered as a mentor.

“My goal is to listen and help shape their raw ideas into something that would be marketable,” Knight said.

Knight, who is a UConn alumnus, said that he also cherishes the student connection at events like Startup Weekend.

“When I get the opportunity to provide inspiration to wonderfully talented young entrepreneurs, I will move mountains in my schedule to be a part of it,” Knight said.

Startup Weekend is a global non-profit organization funded by the Hoffman Foundation. According to Danny Briere, the Connecticut liaison with Startup America, the organization is planning another Startup Weekend in Stamford, but has yet to release a date or location.

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