Students’ Investment Idea Wins Rist DifferenceMaker DCU/Manning School Competition

Pedro Piau and Oliver Jennings present Cash Forward project Image by Ed Brennen
Cash Forward team members Pedro Piau, left, and Oliver Jennings make their winning pitch at the Rist DifferenceMaker Innovation Contest, sponsored by DCU and the Manning School of Business.

By Ed Brennen

Cash-back incentives from credit card companies are a popular way to persuade consumers to pay with plastic.

But rather than putting that cash back into your pocket each month, UML students Pedro Piau, Oliver Jennings and Jack Disilvio had a different idea: Have the credit card company automatically deposit the money into an investment account, where it can grow over time and one day help pay for a new home or fund retirement.

Their idea, which they call “Cash Forward,” took home the top prize at the seventh annual Rist DifferenceMaker Innovation Contest, sponsored by Digital Federal Credit Union (DCU) and the Manning School of Business.

“We all use credit cards, but we couldn’t find a company that offered a way to put that cash back into an investment account,” says Piau, a senior business administration major from Peabody whose concentrations are in finance and international business.

Jennings, a senior biology major from Natick with a minor in finance, says he came up with the Cash Forward concept while working at his part-time pharmacy job at CVS.

DCU Innovations Manager Thomaz De Moura presents Pedro Piau and Oliver Jennings with their $500 prizes Image by Ed Brennen
DCU Innovations Manager Thomaz De Moura, left, presents Cash Forward's Oliver Jennings with a first-place prize of $500 while teammate Pedro Piau looks on.

“I would see patients come in who can’t afford their medication, and it started knocking around in my mind that there has to be a way to help those people to start saving for retirement and expenses later in life,” Jennings says.

Each of the Cash Forward team members received a $500 first prize from DCU and an automatic berth in this spring’s Rist DifferenceMaker $50K Idea Challenge. (Disilvio, a junior electrical engineering major from Natick, was not able to attend the pitch competition, which was originally scheduled for Dec. 3 but was postponed twice due to snow.)

DCU also awarded $100 to each of the 16 students who represented five teams in the Innovation Contest finals at Saab ETIC’s Perry Atrium.

“This event wouldn’t happen without the wonderful support of DCU,” says Manning School Dean Sandra Richtermeyer, who notes that the Innovation Contest is one of the most “high-touch experiential learning” opportunities that students have to prepare for the real world.

The four other finalists were a credit card fraud protection project called “Big Flexers” (Aiman Baig, Danny Nguyen, Haris Waqar, Abhinav Kiran and Fazil Soharwardi); an automated financial management project called “CJZ Statement Analysis” (Justin Yee, Christopher Novo and Elijah Li); a personal budgeting app called “Financial Action Manager” (Louis Cirignano and David Seybert); and an overdraft protection program called “SwiftCheck” (Valeria Montoya, Jennifer Phan and Veyana Thor).

Judges ask questions of a team during the contest Image by Ed Brennen
Innovation Contest judges, from left, Alana Tobin, Steve Schultz and Vasilios Roussos question a team following its pitch.

Each team had five minutes to pitch their projects to a panel of four judges before facing five minutes of questions. This year’s judges included two DCU employees, Director of Innovation Vasilios Roussos and Senior Vice President of Technology and Innovation Nancy D’Amico. A pair of Manning School alumni also volunteered as judges, Alana Tobin ’89, senior director of shared services at Hologic, Inc., and Steve Schultz ’89, ’04, chief evangelist and vice president of franchise development at Supporting Strategies.

“This is an amazing experience,” says Tobin, who served as a judge for the first time. “It’s inspiring to hear all these great ideas coming from these students.”

To help students prepare for the Innovation Contest finals, each team had an opportunity to meet with DCU Innovations Manager Thomaz De Moura for a mentoring session at DifferenceMaker Central last November.

“Meeting with Thomaz was phenomenal,” says Yee, a junior business administration major with concentrations in finance and management who was part of the CJZ Statement Analysis team. “We were iffy on a few topics, but he put us in the right direction and gave us some ideas on how to better our product.”

SwiftCheck team members meet with Thomaz De Moura for mentoring Image by Ed Brennen
SwiftCheck team members, from left, Valeria Montoya, Veyana Thor and Jennifer Phan meet with DCU Innovations Manager Thomaz De Moura in November for project mentoring at DifferenceMaker Central.

“We were just thinking about the front end of our business idea — how it works and what it solves,” adds Li, a junior business administration major with concentrations in finance and management. “But Thomaz told us that many startups, after coming up with the idea, struggle with how the pricing is going to work and how to differentiate themselves from competitors in the market. So he definitely gave us ideas of what to work on.”

De Moura was serving as a mentor for the first time this year, taking the torch from DCU President and CEO Jim Regan ’88.

“It’s fun to work with students because they look at things in a different way,” De Moura says. “They’re used to technology, so they see problems with a different eye — and that’s where new innovation is happening.”

According to Cash Forward’s market analysis, a college-aged customer could end up accruing more than $100,000 in a retirement account, such as a Roth IRA, over the lifetime of the program.

While the Cash Forward team members still have a long way to go in developing their idea, De Moura was impressed by the project’s creativity and simplicity.

“Most of the time, innovation is simple,” says De Moura, pointing to a company like Uber. “You just have to think of it.”