By David Perry
An impassioned pitch for a business making sustainable, smart textiles and fabric pots for agricultural and horticultural use captured $7,000 and the top Rist Campus-Wide DifferenceMaker Award at a virtual competition that went on despite the COVID-19 campus shutdown.
MyGrow Fabrix, spearheaded by avid gardener Justin Simone, a first-year graduate student in the Community Social Psychology program, took the top prize in a field of 10 teams pitching product concepts through their computer screens.
Typically, the DifferenceMaker $50,000 Idea Challenge is a lively affair at University Crossing’s Moloney Hall, but the eighth annual version took place via Zoom videoconferencing.
Virtual or not, the result moved Simone to tears when he heard his team captured the top prize.
“I was very emotional and surprised. I was overwhelmed with the support and with a feeling of hopefulness,” Simone says. “I've been working on my business and inventions for over 10 months, while being in graduate school full time and working my full-time job, so this competition meant so much to me because of the opportunities, networking, resources, validation and support.”
MyGrow proposes using microencapsulation technology to increase yield and growth of plants, Simone says. He plans to produce and sell rolls of the fabric, as well as fabric potting vessels.
“We [will] design and create custom smart fabrics, multifunctional fabric pots, and other horticultural and agricultural products to reduce workload, costs and maintenance times of gardening,” he told the judges.
Simone, 35, began growing plants at 19. His team also includes UMass Amherst computer engineering alum Benjamin Chaco and Simone’s father, Robert Simone.
Each team had five minutes to present its pitch, followed by five minutes of questions from the judges. UML Senior Instructional Technologist Randy Tyndall oversaw the online transformation of the event. More than 100 people logged on to watch.
One of the judges, Instinet Chief Marketing Officer Lorna Boucher ’86, joined from home in New York City. Brian Rist '77, president and CEO of The Smart Companies and namesake of the UML Rist DifferenceMaker Institute, joined with his wife, Kim, from Florida. Also judging remotely were Cindy Conde ’87, ’91 Francis College of Engineering and CEO of CondeCo, and Jack Wilson, president emeritus of the UMass System and UML Distinguished Professor of Higher Education, Emerging Technologies and Innovation.
“Although the moment was captured virtually, I could feel the pride, excitement and the pure sense of the accomplishment of a job well done when I got to tell Justin he and his team were the winners,” Rist says.
Rist noted that he had “significant concerns” when he heard the event was going virtual. But the competition took place “without a hitch,” he said.
The team YPG, which won $4,000 and the Significant Social Impact Award, offered the most timely of entries, a proposal for eco-friendly clinical face masks.
The field of ideas, presented to judges on PowerPoint slides, ranged from a knee brace designed to hasten recovery, a household hydrogen energy storage system and a back-saving ice- and snow-melting mat.
MyGrow Fabrix “checked off multiple boxes” for Rist.
“As an entrepreneur, I am always searching for new and unique – but practical –solutions that solve problems and can be transformed into a marketable product,” he says.
He was fascinated by the product’s sustainability and the application of fabrics and materials. “As a marketing specialist, I look for simple, moderately priced products,” Rist says. “(MyGrow) meets all of these criteria.”
A total of $50,000 in prize money was awarded and no team went home empty-handed. All 10 finalist teams are invited to participate in DifferenceMaker’s summer boot camp, designed to add and refine entrepreneurial skills.
The finalists were chosen from a field of 27 teams in a virtual preliminary pitch-off one week earlier.
In opening the evening, Steve Tello, vice provost for Graduate, Online and Professional Studies, noted that the DifferenceMaker program was designed to make UML students think about solving “big problems.”
Chancellor Jacquie Moloney welcomed the contestants and said that along with commencement, the Idea Challenge is “absolutely my favorite event each year. To have these accomplishments is really remarkable. It’s your big night.”
Over the years, $4 million has been raised by DifferenceMaker teams, 35 companies have been formed, eight patents have been filed or issued and more than 33,000 students have learned about the program.
THE 2020 $50K IDEA CHALLENGE WINNERS:
The Rist Campus-Wide DifferenceMaker (sponsored by Brian Rist ’77), $7,000: MyGrow Fabrix
Significant Social Impact, $4,000: YPG
Sutherland Innovative Technology Solution (sponsored by Andrew Sutherland ’94), $4,000: Smart Escape
Contribution to a Healthier Lifestyle (sponsored by Circle Health), $4,000: Connect Knee
Jack Wilson First Product to Market Award (sponsored by Jack Wilson, UMass president emeritus), $4,000: Smart Safety Outlet
Commitment to a Sustainable Environment, $4,000: Mission Hydro
Honorable Mentions, $2,000 each:
- Green/Living Wall
- Happy Pinning
- NoSno Mat
In addition to prize money, the $50,000 purse includes $15,000 of in-kind legal services from Foley and Lardner, LLP and alum Chris McKenna ’89, who is a partner at the firm.