Business Ideas Take Wing

Competition inspires budding entrepreneurs to turn passions into products.

Feature-BusinessThe moment had arrived. After two weeks of preparation—the all-day coaching workshops and countless hours of practice—the eight finalists in the Saint Mary’s College Business Idea Competition were ready to present. Soon judges from the Keiretsu Forum, a global angel investor network, would decide which of them was most worthy. The room was packed with entrepreneurs, potential investors, faculty, and fellow students. It would all come down to a two-minute pitch, plus four additional minutes for questions and answers.

“You need an idea that’s viable. Usually, these are high-growth opportunities with a clear exit plan. It’s also a matter of how convincing you are as a presenter and as a cheerleader for the idea. Do you have the background or just the passion?” explained School of Economics and Business Administration (SEBA) Associate Professor Berna Aksu, who launched the competition to promote entrepreneurial thinking on campus.

And behind every idea lies a wide range of ideas and inspirations. Many are drawn from personal or professional experience. Others emerge from unexpected places. Still more are driven by a desire to provide a social or environmental benefit.

Molly O’Kane E.M.B.A. ’12 found a business idea in her young son’s closetful of outgrown clothing. She discovered other mothers also had barely worn items that no longer fit. O’Kane had a solution: an online marketplace where parents could sell this clothing and donate a portion of the proceeds to a local school or charity.

“A lot of moms had this idea in the past but never executed on it,” said the San Francisco resident who previously worked in nutrition and program management. “I thought the competition would motivate me to sit down and think about this idea churning in my head, and give me a deadline.”

Hamsa Buvaraghan’s idea grew out of a years-long quest for health and wellness. Searching for natural ways to address fatigue after an allergic reaction to a medication landed her in a hospital intensive care unit, she struggled to find a practitioner who met her needs. Another time, suffering chronic pain, she went from doctor to doctor, diagnosis to diagnosis, without resolution or relief.

“I come from an engineering and computer science background. I’m very analytical. It puzzled me that no one could figure out what was wrong,” said Buvaraghan E.M.B.A. ’14.

She suspected others faced similar frustrations. Buvaraghan also had an idea to help: an online platform connecting patients with the right healthcare practitioners.

A business idea came to Gerald Cabrera E.M.B.A. ’14 when a colleague mused about putting solar panels on streetlights. A mechanical engineer who had run his family’s Concord, Calif., engineering company and designed large-scale solar energy systems, Cabrera thought, “Why not take it a step further? How do you make light poles do more?”

Placing a solar sleeve on light poles could provide energy and reduce costs for communities. But Cabrera saw the opportunity to offer additional services, such as Wi-Fi and security cameras, as well as an innovative revenue-sharing business model. He explained, “That way, everyone wins. Thinking globally, this is a simple way to improve the infrastructure and safety of any city or town or village.”

O’Kane’s idea earned top honors in the first competition, in 2012. Cabrera won in 2014, with Buvaraghan as his runner-up. Each first-place finisher received a cash prize, legal advice, and access to the Keiretsu Forum’s Angel Capital Expo.

“It puts them on a path to being better able to satisfy their career needs,” said Aksu. “All of the winners have pursued their ideas. Some nonwinners, too. Even if they take that step and fail, as long as they’re open to learning from that failure, it makes them better the next time.”

For O’Kane, winning validated her idea. She recalled, “I was surprised but happy because I was passionate about the need for my idea in the universe. Then it began to develop fast.”

O’Kane decided to launch her used clothing business with a friend rather than pursuing investors. She spent more than a year building the marketplace she named Sweet Sprouts while also consulting part-time. She did extensive market research and worked on a loyalty program to increase sales. Then, facing a serious health issue, O’Kane shuttered the site in December 2014.

“It was a good learning experience,” O’Kane said. “I came from a nontechnical background and created an online site from scratch. I learned a lot about startups in general.”

With her health improving, O’Kane is now a volunteer consultant at San Francisco’s Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center and thinking about her next venture. She said, “I have other ideas percolating. Having done that first one, I know how to approach it. I’m burnt out on kids’ clothes right now, although I left myself the option to go back if I choose.”

When Buvaraghan competed, she was already building the company called Inoviva. She had first proposed her idea as a class project while studying entrepreneurship at Stanford University in 2012 and later taken it to the Founder Institute, a Silicon Valley startup bootcamp for talented entrepreneurs.

“For me, the competition was most important for the connections I could make. It wasn’t about pitching my idea but about getting feedback,” said Buvaraghan, who has extensive product management experience in startup companies. “All of the mentors were great. One ended up being one of my company’s advisers.”

Inoviva continued to evolve. Market research by students in Professor Saroja Subrahmanyan’s class gave Buvaraghan information about consumer interest in integrative medicine. She also explored working with traditional medical practices and licensing Inoviva’s platform to hospitals and healthcare plans.

“We wanted to take it to the next level of patient engagement,” Buvaraghan explained. “We also had two patents pending for our recommendation engine, which is another differentiator.”

Then some promising partnerships with healthcare organizations stalled. Buvaraghan, who acted as CEO and personally funded Inoviva, said, “When that happened, we decided to put it on hold. Even if you’re passionate about an idea, you have to be realistic.”

Though still an Inoviva board member, she now works full-time as a product manager for SAP Labs, the Silicon Valley software product research and development arm of the multinational company SAP SE. But Buvaraghan continues to apply what she learned through her experience with Inoviva. She explained, “I take an entrepreneurial approach, whether I’m working for someone else or myself. That’s something that can’t change.”

Like Buvaraghan, Cabrera entered the competition with a long-standing idea. He originally formed Advanced Energy Solutions with a partner in 2009 but put it aside for a position with PG&E as the economy soured. Only when Cabrera submitted a last-minute application to the competition five years later did his idea reemerge—this time to considerable success.

“It took off like wildfire. Some of the investors and faculty pulled me aside and said, ‘You’ve really got something here.’ It was a wonderful response to my raw presentation,” Cabrera recalled. “The competition is a networking opportunity. People are more than willing to talk to you, assuming you have a good idea.”

Cabrera left PG&E in May 2014 to restart his company, now named SolarFi. His biggest hurdle remains locating a manufacturer for the solar sleeve he designed. Cabrera explained, “We have all the components, but finding someone with the technical capacity to build it has been difficult. It’s going to come one day.”

When that happens, Cabrera knows he can return to the Keiretsu Forum for support. He explained, “They’ve said ‘Come back to us. You’re well-known in our community.’ After the competition, people were trying to give me $10 million to do this, but I needed to do my due diligence first. I did get picked up by an investor who gave me a good amount of money to do research and work on other products. I’ve filed four patents already. Some things are easier to prototype than others.”

Cabrera sees his soon-to-be-released product—a suitcase with a built-in battery charger—as a trial run for SolarFi. He said, “I no longer engineer anything. I’m using my skill set to do business development, to exercise what I know and what I’ve learned. Several things keep my time moving when development gets slow.”

He has spent some of his time encouraging other potential SMC entrepreneurs, whom Aksu hopes will emerge from a variety of programs now that she’s opening the competition to students outside SEBA. Cabrera spoke in one of Aksu’s entrepreneurship classes and recalled, “Some students came to me afterward and said I was one of the reasons they put their ideas into the competition. That was one of the most rewarding things about winning.”

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