Student-Led Startups Share $100,000 in Funding at Annual Competition
By Pablo Suarez
Photo by Ross Lewin
A digital tool to help the scientific community reduce a major source of energy waste in labs using hazardous chemicals earned a team of Terps the $30,000 grand prize at the 2023 Pitch Dingman Competition on Tuesday.
Before a crowd of students, judges and faculty and staff, Kevin Tu ’23, Telon Yan ’23 and Oliver D'Esposito '26 presented their startup Sustainabli, whose Sashimi Sash Manager—an installable lab sensor and digital dashboard—reminds scientists to shut the sash to their fume hoods and tracks energy use. The ventilation equipment removes hazardous vapors and gasses generated during experiments, but running them when they’re not in use can cost academic, industrial and government labs across the country over $4 billion every year.
As a UMD sustainability manager, Tu spent months going door-to-door asking scientists to close their sashes, as well as frequently experiencing crashes with existing sash usage spreadsheets. Leveraging Tu’s academic experience in biological sciences and economics, along with Yan and D’Esposito’s mechanical engineering and computer science backgrounds, the team had the perspective and technical know-how to create its product.
The team also won the $1,000 audience choice prize for Tom's Industrious Entrepreneur Award (previously the Tom Savransky Entrepreneurial Spirit Award).
“Our vision is to become the go-to vendor for sustainable lab solutions around the world,” said Tu. “We’re united by a mission to create a culture of sustainability for science, and with our tech, we can ensure that we continue to innovate sustainably.”
The competition, now in its 13th year, is hosted by the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business and was held at the Samuel Riggs IV Alumni Center. The final round saw 10 student teams from a pool of over 100 student applications and 65 venture applications compete for a share of $100,000 in startup funding.
“Putting on a competition like this truly takes an entrepreneurship village to support student entrepreneurs throughout the year,” said Tsega Belachew, director of venture development at the Dingman Center.
Teams with scalable, tech or tech-enabled ventures that already have traction competed in the David and Robyn Quattrone Tech Track. Sustainabli plans to use the prize funds to scale up its efforts across all sectors of the research and development industry and make a sizable dent in reducing the carbon footprint of labs across the country.
Second-place honors in that track went to Lingo AI, an AI-powered multilingual content tool helping content creators launch language-specific channels on social media platforms. Pranav Shikarpur ’23, a mathematics and computer science major, and Ian Costello ’22, studying finance and computer science, plan to use the $10,000 prize to establish more partnerships with content creators and scale their ability to process videos.
Katherine-Aria Close ’23, an art and environmental science major, and Marie Brodsky ’24, a mathematics major, took the $1,000 third-place prize and $1,000 audience choice prize for WISE Cities, a digital platform connecting senior citizens to local groups, community centers, city departments and businesses.
The Main Street Track focuses on small businesses with initial customers and a minimum of $1,000 in revenue but with less emphasis on scale. Winners included:
The Idea Track, whose final pitches were held during the March 31 semifinal round, showcased students who have not yet developed a venture or made more than $1,000 in revenue.
New to this year’s competition, the All Stars Pilot Track included finalists and winners within the last two years of University System of Maryland entrepreneurship competitions.
Aishwarya Tare ’22 won the $10,000 grand prize for Meridian Health, a data analytics platform for university health centers. Tare and her team won $10,000 in the Quattrone Venture Track of last year’s Pitch Dingman Competition for the same product, then named Chat Health.
Johnathan Russell of Bowie State University was awarded the $1,000 audience choice prize for Exclusiveekicks, an after-market specialist business for authentic, sought-after sneakers.
All Main Street Track and Quattrone Tech Track ventures that advanced to the quarterfinals and semifinals were eligible to win $1,000 each in specialty prizes.
This year’s competition was sponsored by David Quattrone MBA ’05, co-founder and chief technology officer of CVENT, and his wife, Robyn, along with Chris and Vidya Ballenger ’89, Tom Parsons ’93, MBA ’10 and Amazon Web Services. Quattrone, Parsons and Chris Ballenger, founder and CEO of APEX Strategies, served on the judging panel alongside Adriana Avakian, founder and CEO, TheIncLab; Holly DeArmond, executive director, Global Consortium of Entrepreneurship; Jennifer Hsin, vice president at Clark Enterprises and a partner at CNF Investments LLC.
A separate judges panel oversaw the All Stars Pilot Track: Kate Heath, director of student entrepreneurship, the George Washington University; Kendall Hobrock, CEO, Dev Technology Group Inc; Vishal Khera, founder and managing director, Khera Ventures; Markus Proctor, executive director, Innovators of Progress; Lindsay Ryan, interim executive director of economic development/venture development director, University System of Maryland; and MaryCatherine Wright, vice president of talent, Venture For America.
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