For the first time in its six-year history, a wildcard presentation candidate took top prize at Drexel University’s Startup Fest hosted by the Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship. Not only that, but that Baiada Incubator Competition wildcard winner was also a first-year student who has only been on campus for the last two months.
The annual festival, which took place on Nov. 14 at Behrakis Grand Hall, also includes panels, speakers, student, staff and alumni pitch competitions, an entrepreneurship expo and more, but the Incubator Competition is the main event — with the biggest prize-winning potential.
Impressed by the quality of his impression, the thoughtfulness of his business model analysis and the overall market opportunity, judges awarded Harrison Hertzberg, a first-year student studying entrepreneurship and innovation in the Close School, a total of $12,500 in prize money to bring his idea for AeroPest to market.
Hertzberg described AeroPest during his presentation as “an aerial drone spraying system which eliminates and prevents pests in hard-to-reach, elevated areas.” He even had his patent-pending drone product on hand to showcase his idea and its design, and offered a clear explanation of how his idea was formulated and how it fulfilled a need.
“It all started about six months ago,” he recounted after the competition, also relaying the story in his presentation. “I was on the roof of my dad’s second story office building on a steep incline, with my aerosol can in hand, spraying a wasps’ nest with wasps all around me on a 100- degree day. So I was like, ‘This is a problem, right? Is there a solution?’ And there wasn’t, so I decided to do it myself.
“I think we need a little bit more of that mentality in the world and I think the Close School is doing their part in changing that,” he continued.
Donna De Carolis, PhD, founding dean of the Close School and the Silverman Family Professor of Entrepreneurial Leadership, echoed similar sentiments when she welcomed competitors and attendees before the Incubator Competition took place.
“I’ll tell you a little secret. Seven years ago when we first started this, there were doubts about student engagement,” she recalled of Startup Fest’s inception. “So, I think we should give ourselves a big round of applause, because look what we started. … It’s because of your enthusiasm for innovation that events like Startup Fest are so exciting today.”
Startup Fest and the Incubator Competition have certainly been met with enthusiasm by entrepreneurial students from across the University each year since its inception, especially because of the generous potential winnings and support offered through the Baiada Institute.
Gaurang Bham, a fifth-year software engineering student and the founder and CEO of AI-based takeout food ordering app Phoodie, which won third place in the competition this year and took home $5,000, said he and his team have applied for the competition for the last four years as they pivoted and fine-tuned their idea for the app. This is the first time, however, that they made it into the top five and were able to present at the main event.
“It’s so uplifting,” he said. “It feels like years of hard work are finally starting to pay off.”
Bham added that the fact that his company was already associated with Baiada was a great catalyst for all of the hard work he put into his product.
“Being around so many talented people, it really makes you think, ‘I’ve got to step my game plan up. I have to really start thinking about how we can develop a business,’” he said. “So, just being around those people just inspires you to work hard and continue to pursue your dream.”
Other student entrepreneurs were thinking less about the competitive aspect of the event, and enjoyed seeing their classmates succeed just as much as they would have liked to succeed themselves. Dahrah Muhammad, a fifth-year entrepreneurship and innovation student, gave Hertzberg a big hug after he claimed his big check, and recounted how they practiced their pitches together for several hours the night before the more than 20 competitors this year gave their initial pitches, and were winnowed down to the five finalists and two wildcards based on their performance.
“I’m so ridiculously proud of you, kid,” she said, adding about his new spot in the Baiada Incubator, “Welcome, you’re joining the team!”
Muhammad’s company is Musa’s World, which provides an automated transition portfolio for families affected by autism which aims to make it easier for parents to understand exactly what documents and paperwork is needed for their child to receive care. Though Musa’s World was reported as the crowd-voted favorite before the winners were announced, Muhammad said she was still happy with the outcome even though she didn’t walk away with any prize money.
“Being able to sit at the expo, I was able to speak with a lot of individuals about this pain point [that Musa’s World addresses], so it was an eye-opener for me,” she said. “That motivates me enough. Competing in this was kind of a dream I had when I was a freshman and I finally decided to give it a shot as a senior. The fact that I even got into the top five is an honor in and of itself.”
Both Phoodie and the second-place winner, Drexel alumni-owned Camino Kombucha (also a wildcard contestant), as well as the keynote panel represented the theme of this year’s Startup Fest: food innovation. The keynote speakers included New York City-based food business consultant and professor Stephen Zagor and programming lead for WeWork Food Labs, Tessa Price, in a discussion moderated by Jonathan Deutsch, PhD, a professor in Drexel’s Department of Food and Hospitality Management in the College of Nursing and Health Professions. A “Women in Food” panel discussion, moderated by Assistant Clinical Professor Rosemary Trout also of the Department of Food and Hospitality Management, also took place.
The panelists answered questions from both Deutsch and the audience on everything from what food innovations are most exciting to them right now to how those innovations can be harnessed to make food more affordable and accessible both domestically and around the world.
But neither the theme nor the event’s history could predict which Incubator contestant could come out on top, and it’s these surprises that make the event exciting to host year after year, according to organizers.
“It’s amazing,” said Chuck Sacco, assistant dean of strategic initiatives for the Close School and director of the Baiada Institute, about a freshman winning the competition. “I think it just shows how students are already coming into university systems with an entrepreneurial mindset, already thinking about starting new ventures. Drexel is a great place for them to land because of all the entrepreneurship support resources. So, Harrison is just evidence of that. … We’re just so proud.”
Hertzberg thanked his parents for their support of his entrepreneurial pursuits, which allowed him to become the kind of student Sacco mentioned.
“I think for a lot of kids, it appears to be such a daunting mountain to climb, starting a business, doing anything yourself,” Hertzberg said. “The employer/employee track seems a lot easier, But, I guarantee this is more rewarding, even if you’re not successful.”
“I’m excited to see where this goes,” he added, looking down at the check in his hand.