Standing in front of a row of judges at the University at Albany, Steven Williamson began his pitch: an app-based subscription service for exotic cars.
A wealthy car enthusiast in New York City may want the enjoyment and status of driving a fancy car without the necessary upkeep and parking, Williamson said. Using his app, they could select a car from a variety of upscale vehicles and a time frame they wanted to use it for. Williamson's company, Enthusiast Connection, would drop the car off at their home.
The company would also handle maintenance and storage, and users would pay a monthly membership fee of $12,000.
"The exotic car market is growing," Williamson, a senior, said. "People are more interested in experience, not ownership."
After the pitch, he took questions from judges, who asked how Williamson would raise the capital to buy cars, why he wants to launch the app in New York City and how he plans to prevent users from abusing the system and requesting a new car every day.
"It seems like you've got a chicken and egg problem," one judge noted. "You need cars to get people to subscribe."
Williamson was among roughly 90 students who pitched their ideas Friday in front of business leaders during the school's third annual Innovation Competition. The event was hosted by Blackstone LaunchPad, an entrepreneurship program, at the Massry Center for Business. The program, an initiative of private equity firm Blackstone Group's charitable foundation, helps connect students with mentorship and networking opportunities and get their business off the ground.
After presenting their ideas during the first round, students answer judges' questions and listen to their feedback. The pool of judges included people working in healthcare, wealth management, academia, law and consulting at companies such as Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP, Northwestern Mutual, EmblemHealth and Schwartz Heslin Group.
Judges evaluate participants based on factors like whether they outlined a target market, sales approach and growth strategy and how unique or creative their idea was. They then select the winners in each of five categories. Participants in the initial Shark Tank-style round won more than $7,500 in prizes.
A team of three students explained their idea for an app that would combine ordering food and making reservations at a restaurant. When people arrived at the restaurant, their food would be waiting for them.
"We want to make the restaurant industry more efficient and timely," said Aaron Toporovsky, one of the three.
Judges asked how the app would work and how they'd make a profit.
"You're trusting someone who makes a reservation to show up at the right time," said judge Matt Gratton of Innovation 518. "As a restaurant owner, I wouldn't trust that."
In the final round, the top three winning businesses get $5,000 cash and more than $25,000 worth of in-kind services, $2,000 cash and more than $5,000 worth of in-kind services and $1,000 cash and $2,000 worth of in-kind services, respectively. RiboDynamics, which developed a kit to test for mastitis in dairy cows, placed first, NutMeg's, a flavored peanut butter producer, won second and the Starving Artists, which proposed a loft space for creative types, placed third.
The competition is aimed at preparing students for real-world experiences, said Jan Woodcock, executive director of UAlbany's Blackstone LaunchPad.
"It helps students prepare their business venture and then actually pitch it to judges," he said. "Our mission is to help students know entrepreneurship can be a career."
Some students will move forward with their business venture, while others may go back to the drawing board, Woodcock said.
"But this kind of experience is valuable in any career," he added.
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