Sunday, August 2, 2015

The WNY Innovation Hotspot and Student Sandbox - An opportunity of a lifetime for Students from across the region!

Let me start with telling you a little about WNY Innovation Hotspot. 

WNY Innovation Hot Spot

The New York State Business Incubator and Innovation Hot Spot Program was enacted as part of the 2013-14 State Budget and provides significant financial support for business incubators in the state.

The WNY Innovation Hotspot is headed by the University at Buffalo and focuses on formation of invest-able, market-driven companies with innovative products meeting real customer needs. The Western New York Innovation Hot Spot’s partners include the Thomas R. Beecher Jr. Innovation Center and UB BioSciences Incubator on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus; Ceramics Corridor Innovation Center in Alfred; Directed Energy Virtual Incubator; Fredonia Technology Incubator in downtown Dunkirk; Harrison Place in Lockport; UB's Technology Incubator in Amherst and Z80 Labs Inc. in downtown Buffalo.

So in December 2014 the WNY Innovation Hotspot entered its public phase and they would begin the process of helping WNY Startups get help with Mentors and Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, Pitch Prep, Startup Package,, eLab and a  Pitch Contest.

This is in partnership with UB STOR

So around March 20th 2015 the Innovation Hotspot announced the Student Sandbox program, a 9 week accelerator for scalable, disruptive ventures led by college and graduate students. From July 1 - July 31, 2015, 8 teams would be selected from 30 applicants from all over the region. This is modeled after the Syracuse Student Sandbox which was conceived in 2009.

The 8 teams that were selected are below, and if you want to learn more about them, click the pictures to get the details. Each of the teams were filled with smart, capable students who were looking for a way to make their ideas a reality.

In my previous blog about Syracuse's Tech Garden 10th Anniversary  I had a chance to meet some of the teams that were involved in the WNY Innovation Hotspot Student Sandbox.

In addition to being paid for the summer to work on their idea, they get mentor help, have weekly board meetings, they are introduced to business leaders as well as potential clients. 

Where do I sign up?

I was asked to sit in on one of there weekly meetups with Tom Ulbrich Assistant Dean of the UB School of Management. The access these students had to top notch coaching, as well as all the mentoring they received, would be any startup's dream! All culminating to a DEMO DAY and a Pitch Day in front of judges for a prize of $7,500 for the Winner and $2,500 for the runner ups! 

What I really liked about the DEMO DAY was it was like a trade show, as if the student companies were really in business and were at a trade show here in Buffalo showing off their products to potential customers. It was well done and you could really see the efforts of the students and all that they did to get this far,
  in only 9 weeks!

Here are some great shots from the DEMO DAY on Wednesday July 29 at D!G in the BNMC Innovation Center.

I saw many great people from many different organizations and some of the teams were getting great feedback and advice and even some of the 43North Winners from last year were there! Again the opportunities were plenty for these teams! 
Also, want to point out that 2 of the 7 teams are Semi-Finalists of the 43North Competition! Interactive-X and Photozyne Biotechnologies.


Two days after the demo day was the Pitch Day and the teams had to prepare for a 10 minute pitch and a 10 minute Q&A from 4 local judges! This is where the teams had a chance to sell their ideas and show you how hard they worked. 

Thomas Murdock did a great job being the host of the event, describing the teams journeys and he kept it fun and lively. 

The judges and time keeper had front row seats to this great event!

And away the teams went starting with Buffalo Automation Group with their GPS ship controlled equipment.

Cartefi was next and they had an RFP for municipalities with a great interface for all parties involved in building projects for cities.

Thomas kept us engaged as teams swapped laptops giving us all the details about those that helped along the way. He also spoke about how hard the teams worked to accomplish their goals.

Interactive-X was my personal favorite, they provided interactive text books that made life for students better and as their name says, more interactive!  

POP Biotech (Photozyne) was a very targeted cancer treatment system. Very unique and hopefully it will be a new way to beat cancer

Storillo was next and another student helping system for collaboration doing writing projects. I liked this as well as I think of it as a combo of Google Docs and GITHUB for writing projects.

The Miss Information or TMI was next, and to me they were the most impressive during their pitch. They created a blog site for young women where they can talk about issues that directly impact young women, written by young women. Authentic as you can get!

And lastly Ethos Studios, making cool games with branding built into them. Great for any business looking for a new advertising angle.

And then the stage was set for the announcement but before that, there was lunch provided for the audience and a much needed break for the teams. 

Dan and Buford talking about the teams.

Steve catching up on work while supporting the local Startup Community!

Storillo founders relaxing after their pitch, great job guys!!

Let me introduce you to the judges for the day! Dan Magnuszewski from ACV Auctions, another 43North Semi-Finalist! Sabina Ramsey Owner of Insight International a wonderful Marketing and Web services company, Buford Sears Senior Vice President of First Niagara and last but not least, Christina Orsi, Vice President of Economic Development for UB. Serious power players who know a lot about businesses and what it takes to get one off the ground! They deserve a lot of praise as picking a winner out of this group had to be very difficult.

So everyone was ready to hear who were the winners. But first Thomas thanked the principal people involved and without their help and support this would not have been a successful program. Vic Nole and Jessica Edwards of BNMC and Alex Cleary-Pelc of UB. There were many others of course but these folks here were major players. 

Next Thomas called all the teams up to give them their certificates of completion.

Before they announced the winners, during the DEMO DAY everyone who attended got a ticket to drop in their "FAN FAVORITE" and the winner was - The MISS INFORMATION! 

Finally Buford brought out the checks as First Niagara donated the $10,000 prize money for the winner and runner ups.

And the Runner up and $2,500 winner was Interactive-X!

And the winner of the 1st WNY Innovation Hotspot Student Sandbox Competition was Buffalo Automation Group! $7,500 winners!

 As the dust settled from this 9 week journey, several things were clear to me. New companies were formed, new friendships were created and the ecosystem of Buffalo's Startup Community was growing in strength and confidence and this is a great thing for WNY. 

Here is Thomas Murdock speaking with Dan Miner of the Buffalo Business First at the end of the competition. Thomas, you did an excellent job with this first group and I cannot wait to see you do it all over again next year!!

My final thoughts? Well, one, I wish I could be 20 again to get an opportunity like this, all the experience these teams gained is beyond invaluable and will be something that will be an asset to them in their future endeavors. And secondly, the collaboration, helpfulness, hard work and selflessness of so many is making our city of Buffalo look so much brighter.  We have talent rising to the top and with these types of programs, its making it a lot easier to get something started!

Thanks for reading!