Innovation Smorgasbord: seen, heard and tasted at the UW Business Plan Competition

Amid the clamorous babel of feverish student pitching at the investment round of this year’s UW Business Plan Competition, one man was silent.

Conspicuously, curiously, completely silent.

Some gumshoe investigating and notebook messaging (plus, a business card) revealed his name to be Rajesh Rjamohanan Nair, a student in the Foster School’s Technology Management MBA Program. And it turned out that his hush was only following the competition’s rules of engagement.

Only four members of a startup team are allowed to address the hundreds of roving judge/investors at one time in the investment round, which plays as a mashup of trade show and carnival midway. Nair was the fifth in a venture called Green Fern, maker of the Astro sensor system that makes standard refrigerators smart. And he remained dutifully compliant of a frustrating regulation.

But rather than sit on the sidelines, this silent partner was employing his formidable powers of expression and gesture to guide wandering investors into the orbit of his vocal cofounders. A mimetrepreneur, if you like.

“I would rather be pitching,” said Nair, momentarily dropping his verbal prohibition when he learns I’m not a judge. “I’m definitely not an introvert.”

There was a lot of that sentiment going around.

Here comes the pitch

All manner of strenuous promotion caromed off the HUB ballroom walls.

Seattle Strong was pulling generous samples of its smooth-drinking cold-brew coffee that promises a double dose of caffeine.

Culture Bites, a kind of Blue Apron for corporate culture development, deployed a co-founder in physician’s garb handing out “prescriptions’ that recommended: “One box per month until culture improves.”

The folks at Yumso were hawking bite-sized samples of its online marketplace for authentic Asian fare, each packed in a tasteful gift box tied up with a bow.

Rainbow Artists were offering makeovers to sample their personalized “lipstick experiences.”

Novita circulated mini-cupcakes, perhaps evoking the warmth in its support network that helps family caregivers plan and manage long-term dementia care.

The MS Entrepreneurship students behind Mind Elf, an online platform to help survive the gateway courses to STEM careers, were all sporting suspenders, for no apparent reason.

Representing Coinglomerate, a cryptocurrency mining operation, Isaiah Barhoum dressed in coveralls and miner’s helmet—“I got your attention, didn’t I?” he said—and wielded a man-sized pick axe, which could come handy, he joked, “if anyone tries to steal our IP.”

Smart ideas

Beyond the sizzle, the competition midway was choc-a-bloc with great ideas.

In addition to cryptocurrency, other glimpses into our mysterious future took the form of student startups in artificial intelligence and blockchain. There were smart batteries, smart sensors, smart orthotics, smart refrigerators—even smart eyedroppers.

That’s right, a company called Nanodropper was selling its universal adaptor for eyedroppers that dramatically reduces costs, waste and side effects of prescription medications for conditions such as glaucoma.

A-Alpha Bio, champion of the Hollomon Health Innovation Challenge, was back with its technology that allows pharma companies to fully characterize their drug candidates before clinical trials.

BeeToxx has developed a carbon-based microparticle that protects honey bee colonies—critical to all forms of agriculture—from harmful pesticides. LEAP Solutions has invented a wearable patch that prevents opioid overdose.

Lonely Produce finds a home for surplus produce from local farmers.

MedsForAll has developed an affordable universal medicine auto-injector for use in emergencies.

Oliver’s Bike Bags is revolutionizing hydration for long-distance cyclists.

OTOGEAR is a branded earplug attachment intended to increase the use of hearing-protection.

Tensure is developing smart surgical forceps that ensure consistent tension on sutures.

Tech Buddies is the Uber of digital technology support.

Vicinity is a kind of AirBNB for the rental of public spaces.

The Investies

The Business Plan Competition’s real money awards are yet to come in the final rounds May 24. But we think a few entrants deserve unofficial recognition for special achievement in the Investment Round. Call them the Investies.

Cutest branding: A tie between Tech Buddies’ robot and the cool cartoon monkey repping SclObo, an edgy line of gear for gamers.

Best company name: Had to be No Fry Zone, an automatic dispensary of sunscreen at sporting events, amusement parks and other sunny, public places.

Funniest comment: Kaitlin Tighe, on the flowers growing in BioPots, the biodegradable planters composed of spent grain from the beer-making process. “Someone asked if these plants are drunk,” said Tighe, a senior studying engineering and business at the UW, referring to the test flowers. “They wish.”

Greatest show of urgency: Tough to call in this field, though a tremendous amount of passion radiated from Nuttada Panpradist, co-founder of OLA Simple, a fast, inexpensive, point-of-care technology for detecting single nucleotide mutations of DNA and RNA which promises to revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of acquired and inherited diseases. “I want to make an impact outside the lab,” declared Panpradist, noting that she still has a long way to go toward finishing her PhD in bioengineering at the UW. “I’m not waiting, though.”

Check out the Sweet 16 teams at the UW Business Plan Competition’s finale May 24, hosted by the Foster School’s Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship