Pandemic Doesn’t Slow Down Would-Be Entrepreneurs

Leaders of budding businesses share lessons learned when COVID-19 moved the Tufts $100k New Ventures Competition online
Jean Pham stands in front of a poster about her company Cellens, giving a talk. Leaders of budding businesses share lessons learned when COVID-19 moved the Tufts $100k New Ventures Competition online
At the semifinals, Jean Phuong Pham, EG21, pitches her team’s idea to revolutionize bladder cancer monitoring. In the online finals, it won both the medical devices and life science tracks and the Ricci Interdisciplinary Prize.
April 22, 2020

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Thinking on your feet is just one of the qualities that entrepreneurs need, but it certainly was on display earlier this month at the Tufts $100k New Ventures Competition, in which teams competed for prizes and in-kind services totaling more than $100,000.

Rather than cancel the competition amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tufts community quickly pivoted to convert the event, now in its seventeenth year, to an online experience.

“One of the reasons we wanted to go virtual is that it’s in the spirit of the competition to be entrepreneurial,” said Rebekah Plotkin, associate director of administration for Tufts Gordon Institute, which hosts the competition as home to the Tufts Entrepreneurship Center. “We support people who are innovative and who can think on the fly, so we should be able to do it ourselves.”

Each team submitted a prerecorded ten-minute presentation for private review by the judges, and on the day of the competition, they connected via Zoom for live fifteen-minute interactions with the judges—one-minute “lightning round” pitches followed by questions from the panel of judges, each from their own remote locations. The audience was no longer confined to the Tufts campus, either—it was open to the world at large. (See the one-minute video pitches of the winners here.)

The competition wrapped up by 5 p.m. and returned two hours later on YouTube for the live awards ceremony. (See the awards ceremony, featuring remarks by President Monaco, here.)

“Our mission here is to nurture what I call transformational leaders with heart,” said Tufts Gordon Institute executive director Kevin Oye. “Every team that made it to the final round had already done a huge amount work to get that far, and we asked them to go even further. Each and every one responded positively. That shows me they all have what it takes to be successful.”

Amanda Wang, EG19, extended a big thanks to “the spirit of innovation and persistence” that informed the virtual event. She and Jun Hyung Yoon, EG19, tied for second place in social impact track with Potencia—and earned a rent credit from Cummings Properties. The start-up leverages community engagement to offer accessible, affordable, and effective English services for refugees and immigrants.

“When the situation changed all of a sudden, the Tufts organizers stayed calm and made it happen, helping us all make the transition,” she said. “A big thanks to the whole Tufts Entrepreneurship Center team for making every possible effort to help us jump into the new format of big event without worrying about our performance.”

Jeffrey Bui, A21, and other team members first pitched a novel sleep aid last year. They’ve come up with Cogna, a brain-stimulating device worn for twenty minutes prior to bedtime. Cogna tied for first place in the general technology track.  

Bui said the Cogna team had already invested close to two years into refining the headpiece and accompanying app. Last year they didn’t make it to the semifinals, but now they’re eager to keep moving forward. The digital event “allowed us to keep to our timeline,” he said.

Members of the FoodEase team gathered when they could still do so, from left, Christina Holman, Lee Ann Song, Ashton Stephens, Earn Khunpinit, Sai Wang.Sharing first place in the general technology track was Sea Dragon Aquaculture Farm. Ben Sawicki, VG16, a graduate of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine master’s program in animals and public policy, is passionate about his first business venture—organic, sustainable shrimp production—and has emerged characteristically upbeat pivoting to an online pitch format.

“If you want to be an entrepreneur,” he said, “you have to know how to use digital tools to your advantage and how to change on a dime.” His training in field biology, and especially his work with Sea Shepherd Global to stop illegal fishing and the threats to endangered species, has provided useful training. “I’m used to thinking on my feet,” he said.

Jean Phuong Pham, EG21, said her team had already used Zoom to conduct more than fifty informational interviews with doctors, researchers, industry experts, and mentors for the past two semesters as part of developing their startup Cellens as part of the Tufts Gordon Institute master’s program in innovation and management.

Cellens aims to revolutionize bladder cancer monitoring by replacing painful invasive methods with a non-invasive urine-based test and a laboratory-developed test for biotech and pharmaceutical companies for R&D. The innovation won both the medical devices and life science tracks and the Ricci Interdisciplinary Prize. Other Cellens team members are Fiona Xueying Wang, EG20, Srushti Acharekar, EG20, Nathaniel Niemiec, A20, Jonas Pirkl, EG20, and mechanical engineering professor and Bernard M. Gordon Senior Faculty Fellow Igor Sokolov.

Visualize What You Want

That positive impression is indeed important, agreed Rezzi co-founders Andrew Murray, E17, and James Aronson, E18, EG19. They won third place in the general technology track with SmartCan, a novel device that automates bringing residential trash cans to the curb.

“I’m in New Jersey and James is in Boston, so that fact threw us off at first, but we quickly adapted,” said Murray. “Both James and I played sports at Tufts, so we agreed we should have the same mentality: to treat the virtual as if it’s a live, in-person event. Our coaches always taught us that if you can visualize what you want, you can make it into a reality.”

“As entrepreneurs you have to be able to perform, no matter what the circumstances are,” added Aronson. “In this case, it was a virtual pitch. In another case, you might be coming up short on capital. “

Another foundation of any successful startup is messaging. Sean Harrington A10, and Kevin Kusch, are the brains behind Notemeal, a software platform built to optimize athlete nutrition by centralizing and automating the workflow of performance dietitians. They are now moving forward with the idea thanks to a rent credit from Cummings Properties.

“The $25,000 rent credit is a great honor, but the real ROI here is a narrower focus for Notemeal with respect to our direction and roadmap,” said Harrington. “The virtual platform forced me to tighten up my message. It was a great learning curve.”

Garrett Weinstein, A18, similarly took advantage of the digital opportunity to come up with a different way of talking about his company. TravelEZ, an interactive website created to bring attention to an “overlooked market” by helping anyone with limited mobility make informed decisions about the accessibility of hundreds of eating establishments, won first place in social impact category.

Considering his one-minute pitch, “I thought this is my chance to really make an emotional pitch for TravelEZ—to think about a story as a different way of sharing, consuming, and relating to information. I think it helped make a strong impression.”

And that may be the biggest lesson of the virtual platform: it prompted the competitors to deploy the potential of the digital world in new ways. Take the FoodEase team, which placed second in the social impact track. FoodEase uses geographic information system mapping, real-time reporting, and machine learning to empower local communities to proactively plan and make food delivery faster and easier in a crisis.

“What was good about this opportunity is that we often talked about operations and finances, but less so about messaging,” said Christina Holman, EG20. “We asked: what are the images that would really engage the audience? That definitely impacted our approach, because our idea is focused on disasters—we focused particularly on Hurricane Maria.”

Team member Lee Ann Song, EG20, added that the team, with one member quarantined at home in Thailand, also reworked their standard communication strategy. Instead of three-hour in person meetings, they had three, one-hour Zoom meetings with specific talking points, she said. Using the online resources “kept us strong as a team.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.