Business Pitches Yield Share of $50K for 10 Student Teams

  From left, Edward Morante and Benjamin McEvoy pitch their Idea Challenge venture, Benji Ball. Image by Tory Wesnofske
From left, Edward Morante and Benjamin McEvoy pitch their product to a fellow student before the DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge. The duo took home the night's top prize and $6,000.

By David Perry

A game modified to make baseball more inclusive, created by a DifferenceMaker team on a winning streak, topped 10 student teams to take home the $6,000 Rist Campuswide DifferenceMaker award at the seventh annual Idea Challenge competition. 

Benji Ball, a baseball training game designed to make the national pastime easier to learn, including for special needs children, took the top spot in an evening in which $50,000 was awarded to budding student entrepreneurs aiming to solve various societal challenges. 

The four-person Benji Ball team continued its undefeated streak in DifferenceMaker competitions.

“It’s amazing,” said team leader Benjamin McEvoy, a sophomore. “This is going to allow us to manufacture by midsummer and, hopefully, get us much closer to giving families and children a chance to play.”

Other finalists, landing $4,500 apiece, included:

  • VoteED, a voter education app (Significant Social Impact award);
  • Use Cart, a smart shopping cart that makes shopping easier and quicker (Southland Innovative Technology award, sponsored by Andrew Sutherland ’94);
  • ECG for Me, an electro-cardio-athletic patch (Circle Health Contributing to a Healthier Lifestyle award), and;
  • Jamfuse, which connects musical artists with producers and others in the industry (Jack M. Wilson First to Market Award, sponsored by Jack Wilson, UML professor and UMass president emeritus).

Since the launch of DifferenceMaker, UMass Lowell students have formed 33 companies, filed for eight patents and raised $2.5 million in funding. Successful ventures include Nonspec, which builds prosthetics for people in developing countries; TopaCan, a portable device that turns beverage cans into environmentally friendly receptacles for cigarette butts; and invisaWear, a personal safety alert device built into jewelry.

In the 2019 version, teams tackled everything from tracking electric vehicle charging stations and protecting from ATM theft to preventing fatal opioid overdoses. Bar Scene Nightlife, an app designed to offer affordable analytics and promotion tool for small, single-location bars, took home the Crowd Favorite award. Runners-up each won $2,000.

A Year’s Work, with Rewards

Finalists were chosen from among 33 teams who presented their projects before 28 alumni judges in a preliminary pitch competition on April 10. There were 54 original applicants from all six UML colleges, representing more than 30 academic departments. 

In the final round, student teams pitched the crowd of about 125 for five minutes each, then faced five minutes of questions from the panel of seven alumni judges, who included Mark Saab, Lorna Boucher and Wilson, who is a UML University Distinguished Professor of higher education, emerging technologies and innovation.

Another of the judges, Brian Rist ’77, a Manning School of Business graduate and generous supporter of the university, was honored at the event with the launch of the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute. The institute will support various student entrepreneurship initiatives, including a graduate student fellowship focused on mentoring and coaching student DifferenceMaker teams, as well as funding for teams to travel to and compete in regional and national competitions such as Mass Challenge in Boston and South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. It also supports a student co-op position.

Rist and his wife, Kim, recently gave $5 million, the single largest donation in the university’s history, $2 million of which they directed to DifferenceMaker.

“These groups of students are so intensely, incredibly passionate about trying to solve real-world problems: poverty, hunger, polluted drinking water. That was just really inspiring to me,” said Rist.  “That sort of innovation, of dedication, just needs to be supported.” 

All Idea Challenge finalists are invited to a summer boot camp offering further training led by alumni mentors and veterans from the business world.