Real-world applications inspire QU entrepreneurs in national competition
February 14, 2022
February 14, 2022
While other students chose predictable business attire, Crocetto made her entrance in a hot pink shirt and black leggings. She chose the outfit to quell her nerves as she surprised her audience with an aerial and some pirouettes before getting down to the business of pitching her TechTurn invention — an innovative spinning disc that would allow dancers to improve their turning ability and balance. The disc would contain built-in technology to collect and analyze data on an individual’s weight distribution and speed of turn.
“I wanted people to sit up and pay attention to my presentation, and I am at my most confident when I am on stage in a dance environment,” said Crocetto, who has been dancing since the age of 2.
Applause gave way to rapt attention as she explained the difficulty she faced as a young dancer trying to improve her turns while using discs on the market. According to Crocetto, the discs tended to slide out from under her and cause her to fall. They also provided no clear understanding of what to change or work on to improve her turns.
Crocetto, a first-year entrepreneurship major in the 3+1 business program, and seven other Quinnipiac students were among only 100 in the country selected to compete in the Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization’s 2021 “Becoming Agents of Change” pitch competition, the finals of which were held in Tampa, Florida, in late October. The others were Nicolas Adams, Quinn Dallai, Armanie Deleon, Dominic DeNuccio, Kyle Fischer, Marina Hanlon and Andre Mitrano.
Quinnipiac had the most semifinalists of any school in the CEO competition. After making the top 100, the students were asked to create an online investor pitch deck that included a business model, a business solution and a video pitch.
From those submissions, 20 semifinalists would be invited to present their business ideas at the organization’s 38th Annual Global Conference and Pitch Competition on Oct. 29-30.
As they waited for word, six students decided to make the trip, along with Professor Dale Jasinski, to take advantage of networking opportunities at the conference and be ready to pitch. And then came the exciting news: Three of the students would be advancing to the next round. Crocetto found out while boarding the plane and Hanlon while passing through security. DeNuccio got the call later that afternoon and flew the next day, and all three presented on Friday.
They knew their ideas would be evaluated based on such criteria as concept feasibility, deliverability, problem-solving, business model representation and their aptitude for new venture creation. Making the top 3 and getting a cash award to further their business plans was the goal.
The trio was grateful to have their peers there to listen to practice pitches and offer support. They were among 500 students and faculty who attended the conference. While entrepreneurship students have the chance to pitch ideas in class or in local competitions, Jasinski said pitching on unfamiliar turf, such as the CEO contest, is very different.
“The CEO selection process motivates students as they see what it takes to compete, and they up their game accordingly,” said Jasinski, associate professor of entrepreneurship and strategy.
“It’s not for everybody, and it’s not easy to accept the fact that your best may not be as good as other people’s best. I admire them for sticking their necks out,” he said, adding that many have told him it’s a life-altering experience.
He noted that Quinnipiac is the only school in the country to have had finalists in the CEO and the other five major national business plan competitions held at Texas Christian University, Brigham Young University, Smith College, Rice University and the University of St. Thomas. “And we have done it twice in the last three years,” he said.
TechTurn is now in the prototype stage. Crocetto hopes it will help figure skaters and gymnasts, as well as dancers, learn to turn with confidence. “Turning and balancing on a single foot are difficult skills to master and are vital to bring a dancer to the next level,” she said. “My disc, which will cover the entire foot, will have a gel grip that sticks to the floor, and the foam part on top will turn, like a record player,” she said.
“As TechTurn becomes cashflow positive, we will reinvest in an instructor-led software subscription revenue stream. The disc will analyze exactly what is going on with the user’s turn and then provide them with targeted exercises to improve,” she said. In her spare time, Crocetto teaches dance at her sister’s studio, Dance Central, in Middlefield, Connecticut.
Crocetto said her father has been one of her biggest supporters, and it was he who suggested she relate her presentation to her life to make it more authentic. She also credits Jasinski with her success to date.
“Professor Jasinski is my No. 1 fan. He has helped me get the product off the ground with assistance from the QU engineering majors,” Crocetto said. “At first, I was unsure about this idea, but he has been excited throughout the whole process. He knows I have the drive to make it happen.”
Although Crocetto did not progress to the final round, she received valuable feedback. “During one of the events at the conference, I bumped into one of the judges. He shook my hand and thanked me for an incredible pitch. He told me he loved how I connected my pitch to my life and said it was one of the best pitches he’s ever heard. He loved how it showed the audience and the judges who I am, not only as a future entrepreneur but as a person,” she recalled with a wide smile.
“That 15-second conversation with the judge reassured me that my pitch and invention were good.” Her ultimate goal is to own her own dance competition business and host dance events around the country.
Jasinski said recruiting help from QU’s engineering or design students, such as technical drawings, specs, or working models made on a 3-D printer, will be the key to future success. “That’s the next step to win, to get the support behind you so your project looks doable when you get to nationals,” he said.
Nicolas Adams ’22, MBA ’23, knew he’d come up with a trashy idea when he envisioned a process in which artificial intelligence-powered technology would have the ability to sort renewable materials from the trash stream, thereby redefining the inefficient way the industry has worked for years.
His idea was intriguing enough to propel him into the Top 100.
“During the pandemic when we were home, my dad and I used to have conversations about global problems, and we got to talking about the waste in the trash system one day and the environmental impact, and together we came up with this new age trash idea,” he explained.
The current trash collection system has not changed much in 5,000 years, according to Adams’ research. Garbage is brought to a transfer station and then to a landfill or incinerator, and most of the recyclable materials are sent elsewhere, most notably to China. “China was finding that the costs to process were prohibitive, especially because materials were poorly sorted,” he said.
“My company, TrashAI, focuses on the trash stream. We think that using artificial intelligence and with the right capital, we could develop a robotic technology that could sort trash into plastics, glass, fibers, metals, rubber, and compact it into cubes, send the cubes to recycling centers, and sell them for a profit,” Adams said.
Garbage that could not be recycled would be hauled to a landfill, municipalities would pay TrashAI for the pickup, and the company would profit from the money derived from selling the recycled products, he said.
Adams acknowledged that he would need a significant amount of money to get the idea off the ground and find investors, grants, hire engineers and build a prototype facility. Although his idea did not advance to the pitching stage, he plans to pursue it.
Adams and Crocetto agreed that their Tampa experience was worthwhile because they had the chance to speak with investors and other contestants about their ideas and meet people with the same interests from around the country.
“It was eye-opening because it really shows you how much work you have to do, how much grit you need to persevere,” he remarked.
Adams said Jasinski and David Tomczyk, associate professor of entrepreneurship and strategy, “encourage us to let our imagination and determination shine and be free to go after our dreams.” He especially appreciates the opportunities to leave campus for the “real world” to conduct research and gain exposure for his ideas.
During the early days of the pandemic in Spring 2020, Marina Hanlon ’23 began to flesh out her idea for her Enlightened Eats phone app. As she prepared gluten-free and lactose-free meals for herself at home, she explored how such an app could help her fellow students find foods in Quinnipiac’s dining halls that were appropriate for whatever food allergy they had.
Hanlon, an entrepreneurship and small business management major minoring in finance, would comb the various food stations as a first-year student before ordering a monotonous salad every day.
“I thought I really didn’t have much choice,” she said. One day, a Chartwells staffer took note of her frustration and said, “Hey, you know we have gluten-free bread, right?”
“Turns out, Quinnipiac does offer a lot of good food options, but students with dietary restrictions don’t necessarily know that,” Hanlon said. She was happy to learn that gluten-free bagels and cookies “were hiding in plain sight.”
“With their dinners, I didn’t know if the mashed potatoes or brussels sprouts, for example, were made with butter or other dairy products,” she said. And some students must avoid baked goods made with vanilla extract because it contains alcohol, which is prohibited by their religion, she noted.
That fall, she got serious about her app, looking for ways to make it easy and convenient for students to enjoy a variety of foods while also promoting healthy choices. She has been able to further her work on the app in several of her entrepreneurship courses, including the Creativity and Innovation class she took last fall.
Hanlon explained that the app would be programmed with the ingredients and macronutrients (ie., carbohydrates, fats and proteins) for all the meal offerings Chartwells offers on a regular basis. App users would log the ingredients they must avoid, and the app would show them appropriate choices.
Chartwells administrators have expressed an interest in working with Hanlon and have provided her with menus and ingredient lists. She is now working on securing funds to make her idea a reality, with data input being her No. 1 challenge.
She said QU would benefit from the app because students with allergies tend to choose the least expensive food plan, opting to cook for themselves. She predicted that students might upgrade to a more comprehensive plan if they knew they could easily identify what they could eat. She foresees expanding the app to other universities and private schools, all of which would pay a licensing fee for the app with a yearly maintenance contract. The app would be free to users.
Hanlon said presenting at the pitch competition was an amazing experience. “It’s good to know someone liked my idea enough to make it to the Top 20,” she said. The app is just the beginning of her entrepreneurship career. “I want to retire from my own company — from something I created,” she said, nodding for emphasis.
DeNuccio ’22, a finance major, pitched 2D Soccer, an e-commerce website that would sell soccer fashion and rare athletic sneakers.
“I started 2D in my first year at Quinnipiac with the intentions of making it a structured business one day, so it’s an amazing feeling to have this opportunity about three years later,” he said.
Almost every successful Quinnipiac School of Business entrepreneurship graduate has participated in one or more of these competitions, Jasinski said. “In the business world, people tend to bet on jockeys, not horses — you bet on the entrepreneur and not necessarily the idea. Eventually, they cross the finish line,” he added.
The professor said he loves nurturing students as they pursue their ideas. “Entrepreneurship students are kind of the oddballs on campus in that the majority of QU students want to get a job upon graduation while these kids think in terms of becoming wealth creators and job creators. The conference is a cool validation for them as they meet others who think like them,” he said.
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