Some of Illinois State’s most entrepreneurial students made their pitch to a discerning panel of business experts Friday, walking away with more than $50,000 in funding and other in-kind gifts for their startups.
Freshman Chirag Rajpal was one of the four finalists at Friday’s Startup Showcase, similar to ABC’s reality TV show Shark Tank. Rajpal was pitching the business case for his company Live Braille, which aims to make an affordable glove with sensors that the visually impaired could wear to detect obstacles as they walk. It would vibrate more as an obstacle neared—a digital warning to replace the antiquated cane.
When pressed by the Startup Showcase judges for why they should fund his endeavor, Rajpal pointed to the 6.6 million Americans with visually impairments, calling the 1 million people in their target audience an “untapped market.” The finance and economics major said there have been little to no technology innovations in that market in recent years, and that Live Braille had already picked up some traction with recent wins at international business competitions and by securing startup money from an Indian company.
“It’s the 21st century, it’s 2013, and we still use canes and dogs?” Rajpal told the judges. “Nothing like this has ever been done before. Google it.”
Startup Showcase, held at the Alumni Center, is sponsored by the College of Business’ George R. and Martha Means Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and several other groups and companies. Formerly known as Entrepreneurship Day (or E-Day), the event was rebranded this year to focus on startups, like Rajpal’s, that have demonstrated some traction. The four finalists came from a pool of 16 viable entries.
The Startup Showcase first-place winner was Rob Martin ’12, who completed a double major bachelor’s degree in renewable energy and engineering technology at Illinois State and is currently completing his master’s in project management. Martin’s Open Source Classroom LLC startup, which shows educators how to use 3-D printers so they can incorporate them into their classrooms, took home $20,000 in funding from the Means Center, plus $31,000 in services from other sponsors, such as website design and legal help.
Rajpal’s startup came in third. Winning second place was Kurt Marks, a senior graphic communication major at Illinois State. Inspired by the lack of an apparel brand that fit with his own unique personality, Marks launched his Cryptic Apparel company about a year ago, selling T-shirts and hats with an eye-catching mix of imagery inspired by Egyptian iconography and pop culture.
He’s racked up $1,500 in sales through a small e-commerce site and word-of-mouth but wants to expand.
“Once I started making some sales and making some money, I realized the potential,” Marks said.
Marks is finalizing his first deal for brick-and-mortar retail sales, and he’s picked up 3,500 social media followers to date. The third-place prize is free legal services to officially form a company.
After their pitches, the students got a crash course in entrepreneurship from one of the masters, keynote speaker Mike DeLazzer, founder and entrepreneur behind Redbox video rental kiosks.
DeLazzer chronicled his own struggle to get Redbox off the ground, recalling his darkest moments as the fledgling startup dealt with financial problems that, at times, even threatened his marriage. But he pointed to a key point in Redbox’s history, when technology problems almost cost them their first major investors. But DeLazzer and his team pulled an all-nighter to prove the tech viability of their product.
It worked, and today Redbox is the second largest video rental company in the world, with more than 35,900 locations.
DeLazzer said he was impressed by the Illinois State students who presented at the Startup Showcase, saying they were “way, way more focused than I was, even into my 30s.” He urged them to conquer their fears, because for him “that was the difference between making it and not making it.”
“If it was easy, everybody would be rich,” DeLazzer said.
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.