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Best of ASU's entrepreneurs to be showcased at Demo Day competition

ASU's top entrepreneurs to showcase their most innovative ideas at Demo Day.
November 22, 2017

Student, alumni, faculty projects to compete for more than $250,000 in funding

Nearly 100 of the best ideas at Arizona State University will be showcased at Demo Day — a marketplace of the future that will pitch everything from a customizable bra to an app for parking spaces.

The ASU-affiliated entrepreneurs will compete for more than $250,000 in funding and support at the event, which will be held Friday, Dec. 1, at SkySong in Scottsdale. All of the participants are part of Venture Devils, a program in the Office of Entrepreneurship + Innovation at ASU. Venture Devils provides space, mentorship and access to funding to entrepreneurs who are ASU students, alumni, faculty, staff or community members.

The competitors include some businesses that have been developed over several years, including 33 Buckets, a nonprofit that provides clean water in developing countries and was featured in an ASU commercial during the Super Bowl, and Humanity X, which developed a technology to detect people in crisis on social media. Others are newer, such as Charity Auction Trades, a platform for nonprofits to raise money.

Mona Dixon, who has bachelor's and master's degrees from ASU, launched Charity Auction Trades earlier this year after working as a special-events coordinator for a nonprofit group.

“I was always having to solicit auction items for charity galas, and one thing I found was that the items that sold for the most money were out-of-town trips and experiences,” she said. 

But most donors will only give locally. She then called nonprofits in every state and found out they had the same issue. So she came up with the idea of creating a platform for nonprofits to trade their donations and increase their value.

“So that 'staycation' package you traded with Arizona now becomes a vacation package for your audience and raises more money,” said Dixon, who's now working with her team on finalizing their financials and refining their pitch.

At Demo Day, the entrepreneurs will pitch to judges in one of six categories: sport, social, cyber/software, product, mix and protected technology. The event also will feature a presentation by the founders of Bravo, a tipping and payment app, who recently won a $150,000 investment on the TV show “Shark Tank.” The keynote address will be given by Keith Ryu, who graduated from ASU in 2014 and is now CEO of the Silicon Valley company OnboardIQ.

New this year is the Global Sport Venture Challenge, a competition for sports-related businesses that’s funded by the Global Sport Institute, a new research and inquiry unit that’s part of the Global Sport Alliance partnership between ASU and adidas.

Jeff Kunowski is an entrepreneur whose venture got a boost while he was a student at ASU. His business, Illumin8 Outdoor Media, which creates LED signage, won a $10,000 investment and office space in 2010.

Now he’s paying it forward, serving as the lead venture mentor for the Global Sport Venture Challenge.

“I’ve been through some of the ASU entrepreneurship programs, and they set me up for success early on,” he said. “So I wanted to create something with ASU to play off my strengths and bring people I knew to the table.”

Kunowski has been mentoring several startups during the fall semester while he has been helping to build the competition.

At Demo Day, 13 ventures will compete in the Global Sport Venture Challenge track, including Hoolest Performance Technologies, which has created way to reduce performance anxiety, and Muzzlesafe, which makes a gun-safety device. The top five teams will each win a $1,000 investment and will compete for the top prize of $5,000 in the spring.

“One of the main goals is to drive awareness that if you have a venture idea, you should think about the sports landscape, because it can go a long way in moving your product along,” said Kunowski, who has paused Illumin8 while working as a sales manager at Panasonic Enterprise Solutions. He graduated from ASU in 2011 with a degree in integrative studies focused on small business.

Kunowski said that sports arenas are like mini cities, with parking, retail, concessions, security, media and even health and wellness aspects.

“Sports are passion-driven. You have a large audience in a condensed area that can give you a sample of how people perceive your product,” he said.

Demo Day is a spotlight for ASU people who have taken the concept of entrepreneurship to the next level, according to Brent Sebold, executive director of venture development at Entrepreneurship + Innovation at ASU.

“Number three in the university’s eight design aspirations is ‘value entrepreneurship.’ That’s for everybody,” he said.

“As we reach people through the evangelism of entrepreneurship, we see a small subset of people who say that not only do they get it, but they are practicing it or want to practice it in earnest.”

Those people can apply to Venture Devils, which has upgraded its process this year to better ensure success. Applicants must now articulate their business plan into a one-page proposal, have a five-minute presentation and create some kind of online presence, such as a website or a Facebook page.

“That’s the real world,” Sebold said. “Nobody wants to read 10 or 50 pages.”

Venture Devils is now showcasing every project on its site, and each description will link to the business’s site.

“We’re investing university resources. We don’t want to say, ‘We have 250 ventures’ and half of them are half-baked ideas where one student said ‘I want to do this’ but didn’t take action,” Sebold said. Before this requirement, students frequently never took those concrete steps.

Students, alumni, staff, faculty and community members can apply to Venture Devils five times a year. The program is an umbrella for the various pitching competitions that are driven by the funding donors. For example, the Pakis Social Entrepreneurship Challenge, previously a standalone contest, is now in the “social” track of the Demo Day competition, with three teams to be awarded $7,500 each. The next Demo Day, April 27, 2018, will award additional funding and support to the finalist Venture Devils chosen on Dec. 1, including $20,000 to the Pakis winner in the “social” track.

“Previously, we were asking the same groups to apply to 10 different competitions 10 times a year,” Sebold said.

All Venture Devils get mentoring and can compete for space and funding, although most projects are far from the point where they need funding, he said.

“We provide the right startup with the right funding at the right time,” Sebold said.

Sebold said that ASU is unique in its entrepreneurial model, which, like any new venture, is constantly changing.

“It’s not a perfect science,” he said. “Our aim is to create a repeatable, scalable, developmental model for entrepreneurship within higher education.”

Attend a free information session on Venture Devils from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 29, in Room 228 in the Memorial Union on the Tempe Campus. Click here for details. For details on Demo Day, click here.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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ASU prof shows effectiveness of federal school-meal plan

ASU professor's passion is policy and how it affects health, for better or worse
November 22, 2017

Study shows kids are not only eating healthier food, but in some cases, school-meal participation increased

In 2010 Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, allowing the USDA to make critical nutrition reforms to school-lunch and -breakfast programs for the first time in more than 30 years. The legislation was spearheaded by then-first lady Michelle Obama as part of her “Let’s Move!” campaign, geared toward improving nutrition in schools and reducing child obesity.

Almost immediately, the law was met with opposition, from claims that the new requirements were too difficult for schools to meet, to concerns that kids wouldn’t eat the healthier food options.

Now, a new study co-authored by Punam Ohri-Vachaspati, an Arizona State University professor of nutrition, and published by the American Journal of Public Health has found that not only are students eating the healthier food, but in some cases, school-meal participation actually increased.

“I think this paper is really timely,” Ohri-Vachaspati said. “Before other things are at stake, we need to be putting this kind of data out there. We need to say, ‘Hey, this is actually working and actually doing what we want it to do.’”

For the study, Ohri-Vachaspati and fellow researchers looked at school-meal participation rates — both breakfast and lunch — at roughly 130 low-income, high-minority public elementary, middle and high schools in four New Jersey cities from school year 2008-2009 to school year 2014-2015.

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was implemented in school year 2012–2013, giving the researchers a generous seven-year window to compare school-meal participation rates, four years before the law was enacted and three years afterward.

graph showing steady school meal participation over time

They found that national school-lunch participation rates among students differed little over the years, increasing slightly from 70 percent to 72 percent. School-breakfast participation rates were stable from the beginning of the study period until school year 2013–2014, when they increased from 52 percent to 59 percent.

In regards to concerns that school-lunch participation would decrease as a result of the new law, Ohri-Vachaspati said, “There’s really been no change. School breakfast, on the other hand, has picked up quite a bit,” because of a provision in the law that allows schools serving majority low-income students to offer free breakfast to all students.

Ohri-Vachaspati recently returned from a yearlong sabbatical in Washington, D.C., where she saw firsthand how this kind of research influences policy.

“There’s a lot of interest in this work right now among researchers who need this kind of data,” she said. “Being in D.C., I got to see both ends of it: how policies get influenced by evidence, and also by advocacy and lobbyists.”

But Ohri-Vachaspati did far more than observe during her time in Washington. She was there as the recipient of a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellowship, a highly competitive, rigorous fellowship for mid-career health-care professionals. It has been historically awarded to physicians; Ohri-Vachaspati became one of only a handful of nutrition researchers to be selected in the fellowship’s 42-year history.

Looking back now, she said, “I have to say that was the most transformational year in my life.”

Working in the office of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, Ohri-Vachaspati oversaw a number of assignments, including research into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which found that in 33 out of 50 states, food-stamp participation rates are higher in rural communities and small towns.

ASU prof Punam Ohri-Vachaspati and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

Punam Ohri-Vachaspati (left), ASU professor of nutrition, and Sen.Kirsten Gillibrand.

So the current administration’s proposal to slash SNAP funding by billions of dollars would “hurt not just the urban poor but the rural areas and small towns as well,” Ohri-Vachaspati said.

She also worked on several pieces of legislation, two of which address other SNAP concerns: one that would allow seniors to make standard medical deductions on their income when being assessed for food stamps, and one that would allow students taking care of elderly or disabled persons to be eligible for food stamps without having to meet the 20-hour workweek requirement.

Other bills Ohri-Vachaspati contributed to include the reauthorization of the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which would provide incentives for retailers to locate in low-income areas where food desertsFood deserts are defined as parts of the country where fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods are not readily available. are common, and a bill related to nutrition education in schools that would provide funding to states for pilot programs to integrate nutrition education into existing curriculum.

Mostly, though, she read and summarized “repeal-and-replacePresident Donald Trump has promised to repeal and replace the Obama-era health-insurance legislation known as the Affordable Care Act.” bills in time for them to be voted on.

“I spent most of my time working on [that], writing memos,” she said. “I don’t know how many memos I wrote. … Repeal-and-replace bills were introduced on almost a weekly basis, so analyzing those bills, and the speed at which you had to do it,” was a challenge.

There were several nights Ohri-Vachaspati spent working through to the wee hours of the morning. Then came time to vote on the “skinny repealThe “skinny repeal” proposed eliminating the individual mandate requiring Americans to buy health insurance, as well as the requirement for employers with at least 50 full-time employees to offer health-care coverage. ” bill.

The morning of the vote, she and others in Gillibrand’s office were “preparing for … a nightmare situation,” she said, expecting once again to be working through the night and into the next day, evaluating and making recommendations for changes to the bill.

Students from ASU had come to visit Ohri-Vachaspati, but she wasn’t able to spend time with them as she had hoped, considering the circumstances. So she boarded a train to the Capitol to send them off, and who should they see but Arizona Sen. John McCain. He recognized her student’s Diamondbacks T-shirt and greeted them warmly.

Then it was back to the office. There, Ohri-Vachaspati and her colleagues watched anxiously on TV as members of Congress settled in.

“And then came the vote. And Senator McCain comes in, and he does this,” she said, making a definitive thumbs-down sign. “And I cannot tell you the jubilation in that room — and the relief. And I never felt more proud to be an Arizonan.”

Her legacy from her time in Washington, though, are the 12 pages of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All Bill” that are hers. Title 10, section 1002 details a transition plan from our current health-care system to a single-payer plan via a public option.

Ohri-Vachaspati made trips to Canada to learn about their system and studied other countries like England and France to see what worked and what didn’t.

“It was a really interesting, collaborative process,” she said. “And to have those 12 pages embedded in there is just so cool.”

In September, Ohri-Vachaspati and colleagues at Rutgers University, where she conducted research before coming to ASU, were awarded a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to analyze and build on an existing data set they’ve been collecting since 2008 to figure out what’s causing a decline in obesity in some populations in the U.S.

“A lot of work was being done in communities to deal with the obesity epidemic, but nobody knows which intervention is actually effective,” she said.

It isn’t the first time Ohri-Vachaspati and her colleagues have used the robust data set to assess public health policies, and she suspects it won’t be the last. It’s her passion, after all, one she discovered years ago while running a nutrition education program in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.

It was there that Ohri-Vachaspati realized public health officials have to do more than just try to change individual behavior.

“When we provided nutrition education, people love participating,” she said. “But when you looked at their behavior, there was hardly any change.”

Part of the reason was because they were working with low-income populations who lived in environments that didn’t support behavior changes, she said — it’s hard to go for a jog when you live in an area too poor to afford sidewalks or parks, and it’s hard to choose veggies over potato chips when the closest food store is a convenient mart that doesn’t stock fresh produce.

“So policy really fascinates me,” Ohri-Vachaspati said. “I’d love to do more policy-level work.”

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