Students bring new ideas to the forefront in entrepreneurship pitch competitions

Ava Hermann talks about her company Avari during a virtual pitch competition

More than 70 angel and venture capital investors, accelerator directors, and leaders in the entrepreneurship ecosystem and more than 120 Miami University student-founders took part in the John W. Altman Institute for Entrepreneurship’s $20,000 RedHawk Venture Pitch Competition, ranked among the top university-sponsored entrepreneurship competitions in the country. This spring, more than two dozen student-led startups pitched in the first round, and the eight top startups moved on to the virtually-held finals in front of judges from around the U.S.

Ava Hermann, a senior Entrepreneurship and Emerging Technology in Business and Design student, pitched her company Avari, which develops virtual reality outdoor simulations for use in pediatric healthcare, particularly in mental health and pain management. “Being a very outdoorsy person and being from a medical family, those were the two big pillars that have gotten me to this point,” she said. “It was really just being able to have those really personal connections to both of those spaces and knowing how important they both were really guided me to this point where I knew that I wanted to do something with both of them.”

Hermann told the judges that there’s a reason she’s focused on those particular pediatric issues. “I've lived them. By the time I was 12, I was suffering from the beginnings of what will likely be a lifetime of chronic pain and a number of often-debilitating mental health conditions,” she explained. “To cope, I would go outside. For me to be in nature was to escape, to be in a place where I was no longer a child in pain, but instead just a child.”

Personal experience also drove Gage Cutler, a senior finance student, to develop FinMan, an all-in-one device for people going fishing. He spent summers in high school acting as a guide for anglers on lakes in northern Michigan. “I was able to observe the problems that my customers were having,” he said, noting that customers were forgetting or misplacing tools, wasting time while changing lures, or had tools that couldn’t hold up over time.”

FinMan helps to eliminate this problem by combining several high-quality tools into one item that’s placed on the fishing rod itself. “It offered a ton of utility, a ton of convenience, and a ton of cost and time savings compared to other tools,” Cutler said.

Avari and FinMan were members of the RedHawk Launch Accelerator’s sixth startup cohort and took away valuable information and perspectives from the experiences. “We would, either in-person in Cincinnati or on Zoom, be meeting with experienced entrepreneurs, people who are very deep in the startup ecosystem,” Hermann said. “So we were able to really learn about what the little things are that can be improved with our pitches and what the big next steps are that we need to take.”

“I think probably the best thing of that class was the alumni that came and spoke. There were a couple of alumni that were in my niche of physical product manufacturing and direct to consumer marketing and getting into retailers and retail stores,” Cutler recalled.

Hermann’s Avari took the top prize in the competition, while Cutler’s FinMan won second place. “Honestly, I think that even more than winning, the comments from the judges meant the most to me,” Hermann said. “I was expecting them to be ripping this up and being very, very harsh in a way that was helpful and necessary. But when I opened the chat after I pitched and I saw how impactful they found my story and how they appreciated the work and saw that I had really done something that was a good opportunity and was truly providing value, I think that just meant a lot.”

The judges were very complimentary about all the students and their presentations. “Congratulations to all the students and faculty and everything that it took all semester long to get to this point. I've been looking forward to this all day long. Generally, I am winding down at this time, but boy, I feel full of energy and just so filled with inspiration from all the pitches this evening,” Ampersand Innovation CEO and John W. Altman Institute for Entrepreneurship Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EiR) Holly O’Driscoll said.

“Great job by every team! All presentations were very well done,” Southern Land Company CFO and Farmer School alum Michael Lonsway said. “Like your Miami education, this experience will last with you for the rest of your lives.”

Hermann has already raised $50,000 in angel funding for Avari and has initial validation for her solution with healthcare organizations like the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, Dayton Children’s Hospital, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and Montana Children’s Regional Healthcare, among others. She will move to Rochester, Minnesota this summer to take part in a medical startup incubator at the Mayo Clinic. “I will be focusing a lot on testing my prototype and on continuing research, building my team of physicians and researchers and tech developers over the summer. My goal, in about by late July, will be to make a trip out west to do a lot of filming that we can use for building up the simulations.”

Cutler said he will continue to develop FinMan as a side hustle while he decides where to take his product from here and his own future. "I think there's a lot of money out there if you have a valid idea that has market traction. There's a lot of opportunity if you've been fortunate enough to be able to create something and kind of make it a little bit of a real thing, I think there's a lot of opportunity to go find real investment.”

Watch the final presentations below

In addition, the 2021 Spring Business Model Road Test Pitch Competition took place last month, featuring teams of Farmer School of Business Entrepreneurship co-majors and minors in the Department of Entrepreneurship's ESP 201 Introduction to Entrepreneurship and Business Models course. Each student team created a company to solve a real-world problem, developed unique business models, and pitched their concepts to a panel of judges.

The winning teams were:

  • First Place: Wildentify
  • Second Place: Mack Accessible Clothing
  • Third Place (tie): Simly Silent
  • Third Place (tie): Amity
  • Third Place (tie): CreativeECAPS

Watch the final presentations below