St. John's Prep Students Win Boston Babson Cup
St. John’s senior Jack Busa enjoyed a pretty sweet penultimate week of his Prep co-curricular career. The teen left his Mecha Eagles teammates a day early at the 2018 VEX Robotics World Championship in Louisville, Kentucky, so he could be back in the Commonwealth to make his pitch at this past Saturday’s Babson Boston Cup High School Pitch Competition. Busa’s jet-setting paid off. He wound up walking away with first place in the entrepreneurial inventors contest and was awarded $1,000 worth of seed money along with the gleaming Babson Cup. Nipping at Busa’s heels was a trio of his schoolmates—Connor McCarthy ’19, Caleb Gallagher ’19 and Adam Lepore ’20—who pulled down runner-up honors at the event. St. John’s 1-2 finish marked the first time since the Babson Cup originated in 2014 that a single school claimed the top two prizes in the same year.
St. John’s competitors prepare for the competition by way of the 12-week Ryan Shaw ’15 Entrepreneurial Education Program that has been offered at St. John’s since 2013. Economics teacher David Hennessey ’83 leads the program, while entrepreneur Curt Dalton ’92 acts as an advisor to program, sharing his own experiences with students throughout the process. Babson College entrepreneurial students serve as mentors to students participating in the program. Students get a crucial dress rehearsal when Hennessey stages a Shark Tank event with the help of volunteer judges who challenge the inventors to further articulate the merits of their innovations.
In the Babson Cup battle of potential business ventures, young entrepreneurs identify opportunities for innovation, share with industry experts the potential value of their invention, and ask for the resources they need to move forward. For his part, Busa says that participating in the program is a lot like cooking: It’s all about adding the best ingredients and treating it with a lot of TLC.
“I believe that the (Babson-based program) gives you back whatever you put into it,” he says. “I’ve learned that being an entrepreneur takes more time and effort than most people have, and that’s why it’s crucial to pursue an idea that drives you to push past all of the speed bumps that will certainly come your way. I also found great value in the public-speaking aspect of this program because I had little experience talking to crowds. As I got more and more practice, I saw myself improving and gained confidence in my abilities.”
Individual students or student teams have three minutes and three PowerPoint slides to pitch their creation. Presenters must describe the commercial opportunity they’ve explored (addressing what it’s a solution for; why it’s interesting; and what’s dramatically different about it), estimate the target market and likely competition (addressing market size and potential demand; marketing strategy regarding price, placement, promotion, etc.) and illustrate the financial feasibility of the business plan (addressing findings from qualitative and quantitative research; prospective suppliers; profit-and-loss projections during a soft launch). Following student presentations, the judging panel has five minutes to ask questions.
St. John’s has enjoyed quite a run of success in the competition. This is the fifth consecutive year that a Prep invention has captured first or second. Busa’s product concept is called Flossity, and he designed it for people who hate flossing. Who’s sold on the idea already? (More on Flossity in a moment).
Meanwhile, when Connor McCarthy ’19 talks about the product he and his two partners invented this spring as part of the Ryan Shaw ’15 Entrepreneurial Education Program at St. John’s, he projects a deep understanding of what he speaks. This self-assurance isn’t born of his ability to articulate (though he can), or because of his snappy sales pitch (though he’s got his down cold). The St. John’s Prep junior, who collaborated on the idea with Gallagher and Lepore, is especially credible because he lived through the discomfort that hatched the award-winning invention.
The trio’s “Invigomat” is an anti-fatigue floor mat that draws upon a commonly held principle of physiology and neurology to reduce lower-extremity pain, diminish the incidence of lower back discomfort and prolong a person’s capacity to stand without support for extended intervals. Now, why would a 17-year-old kid be thinking about that?
“I’ve worked at Shaw’s Supermarket in Wakefield for three years, and I’ve noticed that when I’m working a six to eight-hour shift, my feet start hurting at some point,” explains McCarthy, who along with his partners earned second place at the Babson Boston Cup High School Pitch Competition—the culminating event of semester-long Youth Entrepreneurial Leadership Programs on high school campuses throughout the Northeast. I had a rough idea of what needed doing: Somebody needed to build a better anti-fatigue mat, because the current ones aren’t working. Once Caleb and Adam got involved, we really started cooking out ideas.”
The final product convinced a panel of industry experts and professional entrepreneurs to grant Team Invigomat $500 of seed money to help bring their idea to market. Incidentally, McCarthy makes sure to note that anyone with $2,800 of venture capital lying around can get in on the ground floor as a primary investor. Team Invigomat’s inquiries with alibaba.com (China’s equivalent of Amazon) gave them an initial-production fundraising goal of $3,300 for manufacture, assembly and shipping.
“The kids always have great ideas,” says Hennessey. “The hurdle they have to clear is realizing that the invention doesn’t have to stay in the idea phase. Once they grasp that, it’s not as much of an uphill climb. It’s easy to say ‘this isn’t going to work’ or ‘something like this has already been done.’ We encourage them to push those thoughts aside, back away from their own skepticism and embrace the notion that effort plus good ideas can still be rewarded.”
Necessity is this mother of … flossing?
Busa invented Flossity because he found the process of flossing his teeth “time-consuming and annoying.” Flossity is shaped like a toothbrush and has a built in compartment for a replaceable floss spool, much like a shaving razor that uses disposable blade cartridges. The product’s unique design allows users to effectively floss the back teeth with less effort and without performing any contortions.
“I feel like this is a product that can be easily integrated into a daily routine,” he says. “The replaceable razor head has dominated the shaving market, so it only seems logical that this same method could work for flossing as well.”
Busa designed many draft versions before settling on his prototype. In order to make the model, he posted a job offer on the freelancer work site Upwork.com.
“I found a gentleman from India who worked with me to refine my design and turned my drawings into a 3D model,” he explains. “I then took the files and sent them to one of my friends who used his 3D printer to create the prototype.”
Both Flossity and Invigomat survived the preliminary round that cut the field of potential products down to a top five. McCarthy, who was “extremely nervous” in the first round, was pleasantly surprised with how well Team Invigomat’s final, pressure-packed pitch played out.
“The judges seemed impressed with our research,” says McCarthy, explaining that the team consulted area chiropractor Emily Valorz, who explained the pain gate theory of neuropathy, which suggests a non-painful input like cold, heat or vibration can prevent pain sensations from traveling to the central nervous system. “We felt our choice was between heat and vibration and we chose the latter. Our mat is constructed from regular anti-fatigue mat materials, but it vibrates for 30 seconds every 15 minutes and there are three different modes to vary the vibration intensity or sector of the mat. That should be enough to solve the discomfort of standing flat-footed with no stimulus, and the workload is infrequent enough to keep our motor from burning out.”
Team Invigomat chose to market the product as a business-to-business solution and identified 25 grocery and retail stores within a corridor formed by Route 1, Route 93 and Route 95 as potential sales targets. In-store visits and interviews allowed them to project that 33 percent of the market they’d selected had interest in the Invigomat. The team plans to continue to develop the idea over the summer, but at the moment, they envision the list retail cost as a low, low price of $44.99.
“It was all these guys’ hard work and commitment to doing this that clearly set them apart from the other teams,” says Hennessey. “They prepared more intently, gathering more market data and evidence supporting the need for their product, they created viable, working prototypes that the judges were able to hold and use, and they practiced their presentations frequently, so that their pitch was delivered articulately and convincingly.”
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