Flotation Belt Creators Buoyed With $20,000 Victory at First U.Va. Entrepreneurship Cup

November 23, 2009

November 23, 2009 — With $35,000 in prize money at stake Friday afternoon, the inaugural University of Virginia Entrepreneurship Cup came down to a 10-minute business plan pitch, followed by 10 minutes of incisive questions from a panel of experienced entrepreneurs.

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Choosing a winner from among the half-dozen finalists was difficult, the judges noted, because it was clear that all six teams had spent hours rehearsing their presentations, fine-tuning Powerpoint slides and polishing answers to anticipated questions.

In the end they awarded the cup – and a $20,000 first-prize check – to a pair of doctoral students from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Adam Malcom and Scott Kasen, for their plans to bring to market an award-winning design for a belt-based life preserver – more comfortable, unobtrusive and wearable than typical personal flotation devices.

Friday's event was the culmination of a University-wide competition for the most innovative and feasible business idea. Begun in October with a field of more than 70 proposals, the final competition featured six teams that had each won an earlier round of school-specific contests held between Nov. 6 and 12. The six winning teams included students from the Curry School of Education, the Darden School of Business, the McIntire School of Commerce and the schools of Law, Medicine and Engineering.

"Everybody was very close," said Philippe Sommer, director of entrepreneurship programs at the Darden School, who pushed to create the Entrepreneurship Cup to expand and encourage entrepreneurship and collaboration across Grounds.

"All the teams' presentation quality and style was fabulous," said Thomas C. Skalak, vice president for research.

The competition was sponsored by Skalak's office and the Darden School of Business, and underwritten with a $50,000 gift from Third Security LLC, a venture capital firm specializing in biotechnology and life sciences. The firm's chairman and CEO, Randal J. Kirk, is a member of the U.Va. Board of Visitors.

"Mr. Kirk's real passion is supporting innovation and creativity in young people, especially young entrepreneurs," Third Security spokesman David Snepp said.

Malcom and Kasen made a compelling pitch for their company, called Advanced Marine.

Typical life jackets are uncomfortable, obtrusive, hot, bulky and "dorky looking," Malcom explained. As a result, only 22 percent of boat occupants choose to wear them, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Those who don't wear one are at greater risk when trouble arises on the water. Indeed, nine out of 10 people who drown are not wearing a personal flotation device, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, resulting in as many as 400 deaths a year, Malcom said.

To increase usage rates, they designed a belt with a number of air bladders that self-inflate and emerge from the belt only when the belt is submerged under several inches of water. When the flotation isn't needed, it remains a simple, unobtrusive belt, so that people will have "no qualms about wearing it," Malcom said.

The design won first place and $5,000 in 2006 at an international competition sponsored by the Boat U.S. Foundation for Boating Safety and the Personal Flotation Device Manufacturers Association.

Malcom and Kasen came out on top because they not only had a patent-pending, award-winning design; they also had a detailed business plan for their company, called Advanced Marine, with estimates of market size in America and Europe, details on their projected retail price compared with other life preservers, and five-year budget and cash-flow projections for several possible investment funding scenarios.

"We put in a lot of time and got a lot of input and help along the way," Malcom said, citing valuable feedback from two of the judges at the earlier Engineering School stage of the competition, Mark Green, chairman of the Charlottesville Venture Group, and Reenst Lesemann, co-founder and managing director of Tall Oaks Capital Partners.

The next step for Advanced Marine will be producing a prototype, which may cost as much as $10,000, Kasen said. After that, the company estimates that with $300,000 of investment funding, they can license the design to a manufacturer and start selling the belts for around $220 apiece. "It has real potential, which we've proven time and time again," Malcom said. "We're going to do this. The concept is about saving lives."

Second place and $10,000 went to the Rheo Logic team, led by Will Mauldin, a doctoral student in biomedical engineering. Rheo Logic uses medical ultrasound-based technology developed here at U.Va. to measure structural properties, like viscosity, in order to assure quality control for countless manufactured goods, from food and beverages to pharmaceuticals. The technology is much cheaper, simpler and more accurate than existing measurement tools.

Its biggest advantage, Mauldin said, is that it doesn't need to be in physical contact with the product it's measuring. That means it can unobtrusively monitor any product that passes by on a production line.

McIntire student Ashley Eidson and her partners, Cesar Devers of Princeton University and William Kelly of Virginia Tech, took third place (and $5,000) with Cspot, a business that enables drivers to find, reserve and pay for parking spaces in high-demand environments such as universities, large cities and major event venues.

Using a new application of off-the-shelf RFID technology, the easy-to-install Cspot system would immediately detect if an unauthorized car occupies an otherwise reserved spot. With violators promptly removed, those who did reserve parking could drive directly to their assured spot, reducing traffic in and around parking lots.

Auction-based pricing would set the hourly parking rate fairly close to the prevailing market rate, increasing revenue for cities and schools that currently underprice their parking compared to nearby private garages and lots.

The other three finalists were:
• Moverang, which "simplifies the moving process for young professionals as an online, fee-based concierge." (Clinton D. Webb, Curry)

• KaioTeas.com, "online retailer of herbal tea and organic honey, offering the biggest and most exciting selection of quality products from all over the world." (Georgi Yanchev, Darden)

• PetroHedge, a proposal to use derivatives markets to lock in gas prices and allow personal hedging. (Brian Coppola and Clinton Dockery, Law)

Kevin Sidders said he and fellow judges – Kirby Farrell, Carolyn Frazier and Rick Kulow – were impressed with all of the presenters and their plans. "We had a long and comprehensive discussion, and it was very close," he said. "There were strong points and also challenges with each of the plans."

The event not only attracted students and faculty, but also venture capitalists from the Charlottesville area, Skalak said. "Next year, we expect the competition to grow," he said. "We could have upwards of 500 entries."

New U.Va. Cup Trophy Embodies Teamwork And Innovation

The U.Va. Cup winners were presented a brand-new trophy designed by an interdisciplinary team of students and faculty from the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the sculpture program in the McIntire Department of Art.

The students were tasked with designing a trophy that represented both U.Va. and innovation, said Sommer, who asked for help from sculpture professor William Bennett and Dana Elzey, associate professor of materials science.

The story of the trophy's creation embodies the values of teamwork, innovation and cross-discipline collaboration, as it went from a class assignment to (nearly) completed trophy in less than one month.

The trophy combines a traditional artistic craft for its bottom half – a bell-shaped bronze sculpture cast with the ancient "lost wax" technique – serving as a support and foundation for the upper half's modern technology: a spiraling band of bronze within which levitates a magnet-embedded medallion.

Engraved along the spiraling band is a quote from U.Va. founder Thomas Jefferson: "I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past."

After the design was chosen and finalized, the students worked doggedly to fabricate the trophy in just two weeks.

"This has been most of the past two weeks for me," said Rollin Stanton, a continuing education student of sculpture who played a lead role in casting the trophy's base. He beamed with pride as he explained all the casting challenges that had been overcome and pointed out the fine details in the bas-relief sculpture of the Academical Village: the realistic and unique façade of each pavilion, even the Lawn's tiered drops in elevation.

Meanwhile, the engineering students commissioned two local artisans to work on the upper spiral: Clay Hill Forge blacksmith Dale Morse and engraver George Bentley, who both agreed to work within the tight deadline because they thought the project was compelling, said Lacey Williams, a first-year engineering student who led her team of six engineering students.

For help with the magnetic levitation, the students consulted two U.Va. professors of magnetics, Paul Allaire and Eric Maslen.

The levitation is produced with a set of rare earth magnets. The coin-shaped floating magnet is embedded in a special light plastic polymer that will be polished to look like a medallion and inscribed with the names and details of each year's winning team. "Lots of different technologies and expertises have been used in this project." Elzey said.

A pair of the coins will be produced each year, one for the sculpture and the other as a take-away prize for the winning team.

— By Brevy Cannon

Media Contact