Welcome to the Shark Tank

by Heidi Butler
November 19, 2012

There's an app for that.

If there isn't, there may be soon, and Northampton Community College (NCC) students may have played a role in designing and marketing it.

On the first weekend in Northampton, ten students and one intrepid professor, Jason Zulli, participated in the Lehigh Valley Startup, becoming part of what the event organizers hail as "a global grassroots movement of active and empowered entrepreneurs who are learning the basics of founding startups and launching successful ventures."

It was intense.  It was exhilarating.  It was productive.

Sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation, Google and Microsoft, Start Up Weekends started in 2007 as a way to brainstorm business ideas and bring them to fruition over a single weekend.  Since then Startup Weekends have been held all over the world, but this fall's was the first in the Lehigh Valley.

The fun - and the stress - began at 5 on a Friday in the Ben Franklin TechVentures business incubator in Bethlehem where 80 computer programmers, designers, marketing mavens, and aspiring entrepreneurs from as far away as Baltimore and New York, gathered to "learn through the act of creating," to "interact with thought leaders," to network, and, in some cases, to get a head start in launching a business.

"We really didn't know what it was going to be like," says Jason Zulli, an NCC art professor who had been encouraged to bring students by a colleague, Melissa Koberlein, whose husband was involved with Lehigh Valley Tech - the group that hosted the event.  The advice proved worthwhile.

The first evening, people who came with ideas for new products each had one minute to explain their concept to recruit the talent to bring it to fruition. Participants got to choose which product they wanted to work on. 

A couple of NCC students decided to work together.  The others split up, offering their design and programming talents to different teams. 

With only two full days in which to do product design, market research and financial projects, sleep was in short supply.  The business incubator stayed open until 10 p.m., but many of the teams continued their brainstorming at McDonald's or Perkins after the building closed.

The clock was ticking.  By 4 p.m. Sunday each group had to be ready to present their plans to a panel of judges consisting of Jim Gordon, president and CEO of Robert Rothschild Farm in Urbana, Ohio; Bob Moul, the Philadelphia-based CEO of appRenaissance, a developer of mobile app software and infrastructure; and Wayne Barz, manager of Entrepreneurial Services for Ben Franklin Technology Partners.

The format was similar to the high-pressure grilling on the TV show "Shark Tank."  How do you sum up 55 hours of work in 5 minutes?  "You could see team members pacing the halls rehearsing their pitches," Zulli said.

NCC communications design major Robert Stevens created the logo for the product that won first prize -- an app that will make it easier for teachers to coordinate the assignments that students do on iPads. 

The team that designed an automated home-brewing machine took second place honors and actually applied for a patent during the weekend. 

Third place went to an app designed to help small businesses update their websites and coordinate it with their marketing on Facebook.

Honorable mention and the Judges Choice award both went to BarOMetrics, a company seeking to manufacture "smart coasters" to help bartenders monitor inventory and avoid waste.  Zulli, and NCC student Matthew Manavizadeh were the main designers and programmers for that team.

The all-NCC team of Chris Devine, Katilyn Kovacs, Marco Marinucci and Ferrie Navoa had the distinction of doing something highly unusual at Startup weekends. They not only designed but manufactured a physical product - a billiards rack they were able to produce at the Fab Lab at NCC's Fowler Family Southside Center.

Other NCC students who participated in the weekend were Keith Belmar and Lizette Mejia who were on a team that created an app for splitting checks while dining out.

The experience was a confidence-booster for the students. "It pushed my design process to a level where it took hours and not days," Devine said.  "It a great feeling to know that I cannot only keep up at a such a fast pace, but that I can excel."

Marinucci valued getting "hands-on experience working with different professionals in the industry."

 "When students go out into the real world for design, it's much more intense than the classroom" Zulli said. "This gave them a taste of the real world. They were on their own to sink or swim."

They swam.

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