Knowing that the coolest new business ideas could be birthed in college dorm rooms, universities are scrambling to see what bright ideas their students can come up with.
But Georgia Tech claims to have the nation’s largest undergraduate invention competition, with its InVenture Prize. Its finals were held last week and aired on public television.
Now in its seventh year, InVenture offers a $20,000 top prize plus a free U.S. patent filing by the university.
“We are looking for the next Steve Jobs, the next Thomas Edison,” said Chris Reaves, Georgia Tech’s director of undergraduate research and student innovation.
One past winner, Patrick Whaley, appeared this year on TV’s Shark Tank to pitch his weighted exercise apparel company. A member of another past winning team, Partha Unnava, raised $600,000 from investors and appeared at the White House with his Better Walk crutches that avoid rubbing armpits.
This year, about 55 student teams competed in a process that began months ago. Here are the six finalists, including the winner, FlameTech, and the second-place finisher, OculoStaple.
FlameTech, maker of Grill Defender.
Students: Alex Roe of Cumming, Scott Schroer of Dunwoody and Will Sweet of Newnan.
The idea: A device that can be easily inserted in a gas grill and alerts people if gas levels become unsafe.
Schroer and two fraternity brothers spent a year and half devising various add-ons for gas grills. They started with a timer to cut off gas flow automatically. Then they veered into wireless controls. Eventually, they settled on their safety monitoring device that wouldn’t be a hassle to retrofit on existing grills.
Now, Schroer said, they are in talks about the product with a major retailer and a large grill maker. They’ve signed up about 70 people to test the device this summer.
“I’ve known since I was very little that I wanted to own my own company,” Schroer said. Still, he expects to work for someone else after graduation.
Students: Philip Bale of Delaware, Megan Fechter of Augusta and Chandler Matz of Cumming.
The idea: An interactive way for a blind or visually impaired person to teach themselves braille, using a smart phone to speak words that are then translated into braille on a device with pins.
“I came (to Georgia Tech) with the mindset that I would start a company,” Bale said.
Fechter assumed she would graduate and get a job as a consultant. Then faculty “empowered us to chase after our personal goals and dreams,” she said.
Among their many challenges in building a business is getting the price for their product under $300.
Student: Jack Breen of Los Angeles.
The idea: A ground coffee dispenser engineered to store and pour out the same pre-set amount each time without mess, much effort or the need for a spoon.
Breen always is brewing ideas for inventions, but he’s not looking to launch his own company. “I know the stats: you can have an idea, but most of them don’t work” as a successful entrepreneurial venture.
He’s spent a couple hundred dollars trying on his early prototypes. “I developed it for the competition,” he said, after getting annoyed with doling out his own coffee grounds.
Students: Mohamad Ali Najia of Massachusetts, Jacquelyn Borinski of Alpharetta and Drew Padilla of Tampa.
The idea: A surgical device to make it easier, faster and safer for surgeons to correct drooping eyelids.
Najia said as his grandfather aged he began losing part of his field of vision because of droopy eyelids. The elder sometimes taped up his eyelids, but shunned surgery in part because it often doesn’t work the first time. Najia, a biomedical engineering major, entered his final Tech semester last fall not sure what he would do after graduation. A school project to design a surgical device aimed at improving surgeries for drooping eyelids gave him a path.
He and his partners hope to win financial backing, and, eventually, regulatory approval. First there’s animal testing. Then come clinical trials, which alone can cost $1 million to $3 million, he said.
His dad, who has a corporate career, supports the gamble, Najia said. “I think he always wished he had started a company when he was much younger.”
Students: Adam Szaruga of Lawrenceville and Shehmeer Jiwani of Snellville.
The idea: Software that lets musicians try expensive audio software before buying it.
“I’m sure you’ve heard of the starving musician,” Jiwani said.
That was him. A Tech student and electronic musician, he uses music production software that can also take software plugins that add different sounds and effects. But each can cost $150 or more. Free trial versions often don’t allow him to fully try out what the software can do, he said.
Jiwani and fellow student/musician Szaruga were in Tech’s Startup Summer program for entrepreneurs when they birthed the idea for a new marketplace for music software plugins. The two students have been meeting with potential customers who are saying good things so far, Jiwani said. Encouraging, but he worries that won’t give the pair constructive feedback on problems. “You aren’t looking for yeses; You are looking for nos. ‘Why wouldn’t this work?’ We ask people to poke holes in our product.”
Students: Miguel Oller of Puerto Rico and Ricardo De Andrade of Venezuela.
The idea: A crowd-sourced platform for quickly highlighting, sharing and finding the most important information in any online text.
Oller worked a series of corporate internships, learning something from each. On the last one he gleaned this: he didn’t like the corporate track.
“I’m going to start my own company for sure,” said Oller, who graduates in December.