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Carnegie Mellon’s Best and Brightest Student Startups Walk Away From McGinnis Venture Competition With Investments

As twelve teams of student startups presented their business plans to a panel of judges, a common theme emerged: Big ideas that will improve our everyday lives.

Hundreds packed Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business on March 21 to hear which of those big ideas would reign supreme. Of the 34 teams that started the McGinnis Venture Competition during round one in January, the top 12 were selected to participate in this final, live round.  

“The McGinnis Venture Competition is the culmination of the entrepreneurship training we provide students at Carnegie Mellon,” said Dave Mawhinney, executive director of the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship.

“They have learned the frameworks in courses and workshops. They have practiced their skills in our incubator and on our treks. The McGinnis Venture Competition is an opportunity to bring it all together and showcase their company's potential to real-world investors,” he added. “The seed capital can help them make additional progress and get to new important milestones.”

McGinnis Group shot jpgFirst place in the Graduate Track, and winner of a $25,000 investment, was RoBotany, a company creating robotic indoor vertical farming using automated robotics and software analytics to transform modern agriculture. Austin Webb, a second-year MBA student, presented on behalf the team, which also includes second-year MBA student Daniel Seim.

“RoBotany has been very fortunate to have the opportunity to plug into Carnegie Mellon and the Tepper School’s entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Webb said. “I have been able to marry my education at the Tepper School with the growth and progress of RoBotany, allowing for immediate application of my learning in an experiential learning setting, as well as obtain free help for RoBotany from my classmates, who are all first-rate all-stars.”

In addition to winning first place at the McGinnis Venture Competition, RoBotany has also leveraged the school’s alumni network to raise over $700,000, was accepted into the Project Olympus incubator, and opened a new location in Pittsburgh’s South Side.

The second place team, Teratonix, converts ambient radio waves to electricity and provides a maintenance-free replacement for batteries in low-power IoT devices.

“The McGinnis Competition is a great opportunity to get ready for real world challenges with a help of the whole Carnegie Mellon community, including the Technology Transfer Office and Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship,” said Ivan Pistsov, second-year MBA student and James R. Swartz Entrepreneurial Fellow who co-founded Teratonix with Carnegie Mellon professor Yi Luo. “Going through many rounds of the competition gave us opportunity to craft our message and better understand the needs of the market.”

The judges awarded Pistsov $15,000 to put toward his venture.

The third place team in the Graduate Track and winner of $10,000, 101, builds active learning tools that promote student engagement in college STEM courses. 101 was represented at the competition by Carnegie Mellon College of Engineering student Justin Weinberg.

The competition also features an undergraduate component, in which two teams were awarded monetary prizes of $4,000 and $2,500 for first and second place, respectively. Undergraduate winners also automatically earn a spot to participate in the CMU Venture Challenge.

The first place team in the Undergraduate Division was Inventory Connection, which was represented by College of Engineering student Kerolos Mikaeil and provides Direct Store Delivery (DSD) sales representatives with real-time inventory and point of sale data allowing them to stock their supermarket's shelves better. Second place went to Stella Han, a student at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science, and Jason Huang from the College of Engineering for their company Juvi, an online marketplace for senior homes.

The competition is made possible by a generous endowment from Gerald E. McGinnis, chairman, CEO and founder of Respironics, Inc. Mawhinney presented McGinnis and his daughter Alicia McGinnis with a special placard in honor of the 20th anniversary of their transformational gift to the university.

The 2017 competition was sponsored by Walmart Tech, who also sent staff members Mark Vanderhelm, Matt Grover, Rida Moustafa and Mustafa Harcar to campus to serve as judges for the final round. Other judges included Peter Boyce of Rough Draft Ventures, Liz Crawford of Genacast, Jim Jen of AlphaLab, Ed Engler of Pittsburgh Equity Partners, Eric Tarczynski of Contrary Capital, Ilana Diamond of AlphaLab Gear, as well as Gerald and Alicia McGinnis.

“Competitions like this are important because of the awareness and networking opportunities that they provide,” Webb said. “Regardless of the results, the competition opens doors across the board, from funding to partnerships to hiring… and we cannot thank Dave Mawhinney enough in terms of the advisory and personal mentorship he has provided.”

See more photos from the competition