By David Perry
Nick Deane and Daniel Gurfinkel looked weary.
“Listen,” said senior mechanical engineering major Gurfinkel, running a hand through the mop of curly hair atop his head, “you have to excuse us. We didn’t sleep last night.”
Deane, a senior mechanical engineering major, nodded.
“We stayed up all night doing our entire pitch over. The whole thing.”
Deane, Gurfinkel and the other eight members of their DifferenceMakers team – Air Allign – were making some final tweaks on their proposal as they waited for the Francis College of Engineering Prototyping Competition to begin.
The engineering competition was the finale in a week of three DifferenceMaker competitions that began Tuesday with the DCU/Manning School of Business Innovation Contest, followed by the FAHSS Creative Venture Competition. Over the three consecutive nights, 17 finalist teams competed for nearly $16,000.
The previous night, Air Allign had competed in the FAHSS competition. So had the team now setting up next to them, Benji Ball, a team of three led by Benjamin McEvoy, a Manning School of Business sophomore majoring in finance and entrepreneurship. They came up with an inclusive variation on baseball that can be used for children with special needs, as well as a training tool for all young players.
Air Allign is developing a soft robotic suit to help correct posture.
But the judges in the FAHSS competition, Keith Neal ’93 and Glenn Morgan ’86, offered their own corrections after the team’s pitch.
“Last night,” says Air Allign’s Deane, “our pitch was misguided. We spent too much time talking about poor posture. The judges said it was boring. We talked too much about our target market, too. But they also said there was good stuff in there. So we stayed up all night and redid the entire pitch. Everything.”
“You know, adults try to start businesses all the time and fail,” says Deane. “It can involve a lot of people and millions of dollars. If there’s a flaw in there in our plan, it’s going to hurt at some point – maybe not right away, but we figured we had better learn now and fix things now. That’s sort of what DifferenceMakers is all about.”
The revamped Air Allign presentation (complete with a chorus of “Sweet Caroline” rewritten for “Sweet Air Allign”) took second place and $1,500 as well as the $500 prize for being voted People’s Choice winner.
As with the night before, they were behind first-place finisher Benji Ball.
Entrepreneurship Initiative Project Director Holly Butler couldn’t attend the FAHSS competition, but she was briefed later on each team’s presentation from the judges.
“Then I went the next night and watched, and they struck me,” she said of Air Allign. “Everything I heard that happened during their pitch to the FAHSS judges didn’t happen here.
“This is exactly why we are here,” said Butler. “The students get engaged and talk to us and get feedback, then they pitch and get feedback, and the judges give them feedback, then mentors give feedback. It’s about trying to have a better idea.”
Butler says she has seen teams do revisions before, “but not what they did in a 24-hour period. It shows they are very coachable and are not scared of hearing what people have to say. And after listening and making changes, being successful.”
That’s good preparation, she said, for what they’ll encounter in the business world.
Butler also says it is becoming common for some teams to compete in both the FAHSS Creative Venture and Francis College of Engineering competitions.
Benji Ball’s McEvoy developed a 10-sided ball and wider bat surface (looking like a cricket bat) so “everybody can play” this modified version of baseball.
McEvoy consulted with his former baseball coach at Groton-Dunstable Regional High School, as well as leaders in youth baseball and special needs sporting groups.
The work he did with partners Gavin Donohoe, a sophomore engineering major, and freshman English major Tristan Naboicheck paid off: Over two nights, the team won $7,500 to take the next steps to making Benji Ball a reality.
The DifferenceMaker winners include:
- DCU/Manning School of Business Innovation Contest: Chip Away, a mobile app that helps recent college graduates pay down student loans with small, daily payments. Team members included William C. Fulbrook Hanna, George Le (whose Iron Legion drone project won campuswide DifferenceMaker honors last year), Peter Maitland and Hannah J. Wright. Chip Away won $2,400.
- FAHSS Creative Venture Competition: Benji Ball, $5,000.
- Francis College of Engineering Prototype Contest: Benji Ball, first place, $2,500. Air Allign, second place, $1,500, plus $500 for the People’s Choice award. SASS (GPS tracking for adventurers), third place, $1,000.
Winners are automatically entered in the $50,000 Idea Challenge in the spring.