ND Startup Weekend: Let the sparks fly!

Author: Mendoza College

 No more "one hand washes the other" in public restrooms:  TruClean Solutions Inc.'s wall-mounted gizmo – think twin fist-sized carwashes with spinning spray nozzles for soap and rinse, air for drying – does the job in 30 seconds or less.  With 75 percent less water use, a mechanism that adjusts to wheelchair height, no paper waste and a uniform clean every time, the machine could help reduce infections and food-borne illnesses in restaurants, medical offices, schools and entertainment venues.

TruClean Solutions is just one brainchild of the recent Notre Dame Startup Weekend at Innovation Park at Notre Dame, a 54-hour thinkfest aimed at moving bright ideas closer to market.  Startup Weekend was a collaboration between the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Mendoza College of Business and ND’s ESTEEM program, along with a number of other groups on campus: Students helped organize the event, which included participants from both campus and community. The Kauffman Foundation created the structure.

More than 100 people showed up for the weekend's opening on Friday, April 13, with 40 giving pitches for their startup ideas. Participants selected the top nine candidates; others joined teams of eight or nine people to begin working on each of these top ideas. The teams then each coalesced for long hours of development, including writing code and building websites.

"There was so much energy and so much buzz in this room on Friday night," according to David Murphy, associate dean of entrepreneurship for the colleges of science and engineering.  "When it comes to entrepreneurship, the key is to get the right people in the room, let the sparks fly, let the creativity happen."

Murphy is the former CEO of Better World Books, an online bookseller started by entrepreneurial students on campus several years ago.  The bookseller, which now employs hundreds of people, won a top prize in the Gigot Center’s McCloskey Business Plan Competition in 2003.

Most of the ideas involved quick-start technology, such as mobile apps or Web-based products.

The Gigot Center was instrumental in recruiting CEOs and successful entrepreneurs to help mentor the teams, asking pointed questions that led to adjustments in target market or price point.

On the second day, participants spent a few hours surveying potential customers, making phone calls or buttonholing shoppers at Eddy Street Commons to ask whether they would buy such-and-such a product, and at what price.

Business plans were due at 1 p.m. the third day, and the Innovation Park room, stocked with meals and snacks, stayed open while some teams worked all night.  Would-be entrepreneurs gave their five-minute spiels to the audience, including a front row of judges, on the final afternoon.  The group called Stoxer proposed a tool for gathering information about what social media is saying about stocks. BeeCorp want to provide financing for startup companies to help revitalize local communities. AfrAmConnect would provide a Web-based link between U.S. health-care companies and potential African markets.

CoverTap, a mobile app, promised to ease "nightology," smoothing payment of cover charges and tabs at bars and nightclubs, including access to coupons. Alibi would redesign the State Theatre in downtown South Bend for an artistic collective.

Grab me a cab, proposed by Nicole Vachon, a third-year law student from New York City, would include a mapping service to view nearby available cabs, book them with a click, and track their progress to pick you up.

Web-based GrammarTree would enable students to practice grammar skills and send data to their teacher quickly and efficiently. Three Square would create comic strips of one to three panels to immortalize your exploits on Facebook.

TruClean, the do-it-for-you handwashing firm, estimated it would need $750,000 to $1 million for research and development, $1.5 million for first-year operating costs, but units could sell for $2,000 to $3,000, and bottles of cleansing solution for $95.  Marketing of the product could start with a chain such as Papa John's and spread to other restaurants and industries with a premium on clean. Sixty percent of consumers polled said they'd like to find the device in restrooms.

Winners at the weekend were Three Square, CoverTap and TruClean. For first place, Three Square qualified for six months' free rent, free legal and marketing support, a cash prize and access to angel investors. Other top finishers also received prices.

Information about the weekend, including pitches for the nine companies, is at http://www.facebook.com/swnotredame.