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ASU entrepreneurs win more than $300,000 to nurture ventures

April 29, 2018

Demo Days awards investment cash, services to promising projects by students, faculty, alumni and community members

Sometimes it takes only a little bit of money to nurture big dreams.

Nearly 100 teams of entrepreneurs pitched their projects during Demo Days last week, hoping to get a few thousand dollars to advance their projects.

In all, more than $300,000 in cash and services was awarded to dozens of teams in Venture Devils, a program in the office of Entrepreneurship + Innovation at Arizona State University that provides space, mentorship and access to funding to entrepreneurs who are ASU students, faculty, alumni or community members. The event combined eight funding competitions.

Some ventures were highly technical and will need hundreds of thousands of dollars to eventually get off the ground, like an automated waste-sorting machine, while others solve smaller-scale problems, like a $12 plug that will keep hair from clogging pipes, invented by two long-haired siblings.

The waste-sorting project, called Hygiea, won $2,000 from the Pakis Social Venture Challenge, and the siblings, Holly Hillsten and Justin Hillsten, won $8,500 for DrainFunnel in the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative. Both are undergraduates in the W. P. Carey School of Business.

Many of the teams that won the largest amounts of funding have been working for years on their projects. Ryan Stoll, co-founder of Compass for Courage, won $20,000 in the Pakis Social Entrepreneurship Challenge. He has been working for seven years on the project as part of his PhD training. Compass for Courage makes an interactive curriculum for children that uses board games to help them learn skills to overcome anxiety. The program is already used in 26 Arizona schools.

Ryan Stoll presents his venture, Compass for Courage, during the Pakis Social Entrepreneurship Challenge at Demo Days at Skysong on Friday. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Hoolest Performance Technologies, made up of three students, has won several funding competitions since it was founded less than two years ago. On Friday, Hoolest won in two categories: A $12,500 prize from the Edson Student Entrepreneurship competition and a trip to the Portland, Oregon, headquarters of adidas for mentoring, from the Global Sport Venture Challenge contest.

The venture, which makes earbud devices that block stress by stimulating the vagus nerve, has won more than $110,000 in two competitions in the past year. The idea was launched by Nicholas Hool, a biomedical engineering PhD student who suffered from performance anxiety while he was a nationally competitive golfer in high school. He said the device, now being tested in professional athletes, could eventually be used to help people manage symptoms of opioid withdrawal.

(From left) ASU alumnus and entrepreneurship class instructor Scott Wald gives a $50,000 award to Tanner Tryon and Danny Pickett of EZEQ Rentals at the New Venture Challenge on Thursday at SkySong. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Some of the winners already have a lot of experience. EZEQ Rentals is owned by two men who have been in the business world for many years and took a graduate-level class in the W. P. Carey School of Business in entrepreneurship this spring. They won the grand prize of $50,000 in the New Venture Challenge, a class taught by Scott Wald, a software entrepreneur who earned an MBA from ASU.

“I’ve worked for the third-largest equipment rental in the world, and we had 10 sales reps who would drive around the Valley delivering boxes of donuts trying to drum up business,” said Tanner Tryon, whose business, which he co-owns with Thunderbird School of Global Management Executive MBA student Danny Pickett, is an online marketplace for equipment rental. “Our employees would spend hours each week looking up quotes, all of which could be done on our marketplace.”

Ann Grimes, who will earn her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering in May, co-founded Engineering Design Innovations, which invented a device that allows homeowners to control the timing of flood irrigation of their yards through a phone app. She has owned an engineering company with her husband for more than 20 years and has lived in a home with flood irrigation for 27 years.

“It’s inconvenient and outdated and there’s a better way,” said Grimes, who won $8,500 with her co-founder, Christian Coleman, who also is earning his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

Ann Grimes and Christian Coleman, who will both earn their bachelor's degrees in mechanical engineering in May, present their business plan for an automated valve that lets homeowners control flood irrigation. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Among the other ventures that won cash:

HumanityX, which created a platform called Ark Humanity that uses social media to triage cases of suicide ideation and connect people identified as being at risk with trained counselors, won $5,000 in the Pakis Social Entrepreneurship Challenge. The team includes ASU undergraduate and graduate students.

AirGarage, an online marketplace founded by undergraduates Scott Fitsimones and Jonathon Barkl that allows homeowners and businesses to rent parking spaces to people looking for affordable parking near ASU, won $12,000 from the Edson Student Entrepreneurship Initiative.

Purse King, a venture owned by an ASU student and alumni, won $5,000 to fund its line of purses made of synthetic, plant-based materials, with several models designed for women who carry concealed handguns. “Just because you conceal and carry doesn’t mean you don’t love animals,” said co-founder Jessica Knab, who earned an MBA from ASU.

The TrueUnion Project won $8,500 to develop its online platform that offers a short list of wedding vendors for couples who don’t want to wade through the thousands of photographers, florists, caterers and other providers. It’s co-founded by photographers Murphy McGary and Keegan Carlson, who are MBA students.

Garden of Eden won $5,000 for its aeroponic system that grows vegetables year-round on vertical towers, using 90 percent less water and land than conventional growing. The urban farm was founded by Yann Raymond, a senior in sustainability.

While $1,000 might not seem like a lot, that was the funding goal of the Shonto Mountain Bike Initiative — and they got it. The venture is part of Engineering Projects in Community Service in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, known as EPICS.

The goal is to create recreational and business opportunities in the Shonto community on the Navajo reservation three ways: help the residents develop a 12-mile mountain bike trail to promote ecotourism, launch a mountain-bike team in the schools and create a pump track, which is like a skate park for mountain bikes.

Alyssa Carlson, a sophomore majoring in chemical engineering, said that the EPICS project is partnering with ASU Surplus to acquire bikes for the Shonto youths.

“Everything will go to getting bikes and helmets and pads. We get bikes for $20 each, so that means like 50 bikes, which is awesome,” Carlson said. “We already have 41 bikes so we’ll be able to get bikes to all the kids who want one.”

Dornubari Vizor, co-founder of the web-development company Yazamo and an alumnus of ASU, described how he grew his company over six years to be worth more than $1 million. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Even when ventures start to get off the ground as businesses, the money can come in small amounts. Dornubari Vizor, co-founder of the web-development company Yazamo, is an alumnus of ASU and the Edson program. He gave a keynote talk describing how he grew his company over six years to be worth more than $1 million.

First, he showed a photo of himself sitting on the floor in a tiny, cluttered room.

“I’m eating a bowl of rice, and it’s probably my seventh bowl of rice that day because that’s all I had to eat,” he said.

But he told the budding entrepreneurs at Demo Day that it’s important for them to take a salary from their ventures.

“I would get grants and be like, ‘I’m putting all of this into my business,’ ” he said. Until a mentor set him straight.

“He told me, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re making $250 a month when you’re starting out. Pay yourself $20 so you reward yourself for your hard work and you can see the business as a source of income.’

“You’re the first employee and you deserve a livable wage.”

Learn more about ASU Venture Devils.

Top photo: Sparky congratulates one of the winning team at the Demo Day pitch competition on Friday at SkySong. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


A love of chemistry took grad a long way from home

April 29, 2018

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2018 commencement

Victoria Hernandez, a native of Plainsboro, New Jersey, had never heard of Arizona State University, or Barrett, the Honors College, when she was in high school. In fact, her mother nearly threw out a letter (she hadn’t put her contacts in that morning) offering her a New American University Scholarship, covering the entirety of her out-of-state tuition, and the offer of flying her out to tour ASU. Victoria Hernandez Victoria Hernandez, from Plainsboro, New Jersey, is graduating with a chemistry degree from ASU's School of Molecular Sciences. Download Full Image

Hernandez, being a New Jersey native, hadn’t applied to ASU. With the scholarship in hand she visited ASU and really liked what she saw. She was accepted to all of the schools she applied to, but her parents only had enough money to pay for her to either go to ASU or her state school in New Jersey. Student loans seemed prohibitive.

ASU gave Victoria the opportunity to do something different, so she grabbed it.

“I honestly wasn’t expecting ASU to be as perfect a school as it was for me,” she explained. “I wasn’t expecting to meet faculty as invested in my success as those in the School of Molecular Sciences, and I wasn’t expecting the research experiences I had. These aspects of ASU made my homesickness less severe. They made my risk pay off.”

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? 

Answer: I don’t believe in “aha” moments. I think realizations, decisions and changes arise from gradual, sometimes grueling, processes. I entered ASU as a chemical engineering major because my peers and some family members made me feel like that was the field to study, despite the fact that my favorite subject in school was chemistry. My chemistry major started as a minor I added my second semester at ASU, a way for me to appease a restless part of my mind that was missing the subject I hadn’t studied since my junior year of high school.  

While the engineering program at ASU is great, chemical engineering wasn’t fulfilling me; it wasn’t answering the questions I really wanted to answer. I was back and forth on the decision to change majors. I cried a lot. I had a lot of long phone calls with my mom. I tried to avoid acting on a decision that would cause too much of a rift in my academic career, but in many ways, I feel like I made the decision subconsciously. The moment I actually changed my major, the moment I marched over to the advising office and made my decision final, happened right after a chemical engineering class that I was upset during because I just didn’t like what I was studying. But why be upset? If I didn’t like it, why was I studying it? Who was forcing me? When I seriously asked those questions, I acted and never looked back.  

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: Wow, there are a lot of things! There was one Barrett class I took the second semester of my third year, HON 394: What is college for? I think that class changed my perspective on a lot of things. We studied higher education in the U.S., specifically undergraduate education, and the problems and challenges that often plague college institutions. The class also explored the purpose of higher education, why we are all in college in the first place. We read a lot of books written by experts in higher education, yet in some ways I feel like we barely scratched the surface.

The best part of the class, however, had to be at the end when our class held a student panel where we discussed what we learned in the class with other Barrett students. So many people came! And what they had to say was really insightful. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Be flexible. Be just as open to experience change as you are to resist it. You may have started college with some idea of what it would be like, what you would study and what you might do once you graduate, but don’t be afraid to deviate from those plans. And if you choose to stay on a path, that’s OK too. The point is to be open to go with whatever feels right. The worst thing you can do is stay with a place, a major, a social circle or a plan that makes you unhappy or doesn’t seem right for you. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: There used to be a bench just inside the Barrett complex. It was straight ahead, past the bike racks when you walked in through the gate by the fountains. The bench isn’t there anymore, but I still remember it vividly. I spent a lot of time on that bench, thinking and changing for better and sometimes for worse (all part of the process). The bench was calm and peaceful without being isolating.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Well, for my immediate plans I will be attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology program as a PhD student in biology. Yes, you read that right, biology, though I will be primarily studying biochemistry and the structures of macromolecules like proteins.

A part of my “discovering my major” story that I skipped over was that my initial interest in chemistry came when I encountered chemistry topics in my high school biology class, a year before I even took a chemistry class. Since then, I think at least subconsciously biological questions have been building in me. Over the past few years, I’ve investigated biological questions from a more biochemical question in both my laboratory research and history of science research. Those experiences slowly, but surely, pulled me closer and closer to pursuing fields relating to biology. 

As for what I plan to do after graduate school? I’m not entirely sure. I enjoy the prospect of teaching; perhaps I will pursue a career as a professor. However, I’m not going to stress out about any plan. I’ll just go where the wind takes me, trying my best to do some good.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: This is typically a question I try to avoid because I don’t think I’m qualified to say how $40 million is best spent. If I must answer though, and I must choose one problem (I would likely try to choose more), I would probably put it toward sustainability efforts or combating climate change. That’s a little nod to the topics I focused my research on when I was an engineering major, and I think that unlike many other problems on our planet, those affect everyone.  

Jenny Green

Clinical associate professor, School of Molecular Sciences