Austin Meier, creator of Sensiplicity, presents his product to the Next Great Startup judges.
Created through Oregon State’s Advantage Accelerator program, the competition gave some of Oregon State’s most innovative student minds the opportunity to pitch their business ideas, with 27 startup teams vying for 16 available spots and a chance to win several prizes totaling over $30,000.
The second round was modeled after the TV show, “The Voice.” Each startup pitched to four venture capitalist (VC) coaches, who selected teams to mentor throughout the competition. If more than one venture capitalist coach chose the same team, there was a reverse pitch to the student from the VC coach that attempted to persuade that startup to choose them.
The third round drilled down to nine teams, with businesses ranging from a platform for marketing travel tour guides to a rover that can determine safe fracking zones. During each round, teams were judged based on customer discovery, product market fit and a completed Business Model Canvas.
The top nine teams narrowed further to a final four and finished as follows:
Horticulture depends on multiple — and often complicated — variables. That’s why Austin Meier and his team were determined to create a simple solution that would benefit all plant researchers.
Their product — a printed circuit board with embedded sensors that can be inserted into soil — measures soil moisture and temperature, as well as humidity, temperature and light levels above ground. Sensiplicty’s device helps both growers and research scientists analyze heat, drought and salt stress on plants. The data is collected in a microcomputer that is cloud-enabled, making it accessible from anywhere.
“It is very user-friendly, which was our number one goal,” says Meier, a botany and plant pathology post-doc scholar. “We wanted it to be open-ended to the point where if you are interested in using it, it can be molded to your purpose.”
Meier says the data collected by these sensors helps scientists determine whether plants are stressed, not getting enough light or experiencing drought. In the future, Meier plans to work with nurseries and wineries to predict when plants need to be watered and how to avoid diseases. After that, Sensiplicity will work with turf grass researchers and golf course superintendents to determine when course greens and fairways need irrigating, reducing their water use.
Meier says one of the best things he’s learned in the Advantage Accelerate program and the Next Great Startup competition is how to cater his message to different audiences.
“Deciphering between research and business languages has helped me expand on my skill set,” he says.
One example — and the most challenging part of the competition — was crafting a 3-minute pitch. Meier says getting feedback from his venture capitalist coach Julianne Brands — partner at the Oregon Angel Fund — and determining how to fill in the gaps was game-changing.
Having won a $2,400 cash prize in the competition, Sensiplicity’s next steps include finalizing an invention disclosure agreement through Oregon State for a license to sell its sensors, applying for National Science Foundation business grants and finding collaborators for analytics, hardware and software.
Were Meier to provide a startup with any advice, it would be to get out there and learn about the market they’re trying to get into.
“The most important thing I’ve learned is there isn’t a roadmap, there isn’t a curriculum,” he says. “You get to make your own rules, so find out everything you can about how that market operates and capitalize on it.”
Anton Schuster, Rambuta Remote Sensing
It started as an idea to help optimize water use in farmers’ fields. From there, it grew into a business that could maximize crop yields and increase the world’s food security.
Anton Schuster, an Oregon State junior majoring in business and physics, created Rambuta Remote Sensing with two other students, Antonio Sam and Aaron Nibler. Their product uses an algorithm to detect plant stress in crops — pest infestations, lack of water and fertilizer — by identifying and analyzing photos taken by semi-autonomous drones.
Rambuta’s technology is especially helpful for crop consultants, who alert farmers to crop stress and suggest remedies. The consultants’ current process involves driving around fields and examining crops with the naked eye, then reporting back to the farmer. This process is time-consuming, imprecise and labor-intensive.
Only one other type of remote sensing exists currently, known as the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). Schuster says Rambuta’s technology is 40 percent more accurate and more than five times less costly than NDVI. And it’s efficient. Once the data has been analyzed, results are sent via email directly to the crop consultant and farmer.
After steadily working on their business plan for the past three academic terms, Schuster and his team were encouraged to apply for the Next Great Startup competition by their advisors in the College of Business. Schuster says the most challenging thing about preparing for the competition was switching his mind from a technical to business focus.
“Preparing for pitches was a really good process for our team, to get going as an actual company, not just as a research group,” he says.
Having won a $2,900 cash prize for third place, Rambuta Remote Sensing expects to start generating revenue by the end of summer. The company is monitoring a few thousand acres of hops for the Oregon Hop Commission and analyzing kale fields for a grower in Monmouth.
Beyond the broad goals of helping farmers become more efficient and maximize yields, Schuster also wants his technology to help limit the environmental impact of pesticides and runoff. Today, many farmers have to completely blanket their crops with pesticides and fertilizer to fight disease and grow efficiently. With Rambuta, farmers can detect diseases early, allowing them to apply a precise amount of pesticide and fertilizer to a specific crop area, reducing the amount of runoff that ends up in waterways while saving the farmer money.
Out of everything he’s learned through his experience in the competition, Schuster says finding his company’s place in the business value chain has been most important.
“It is so enlightening to discover your company’s potential and foresee where you will end up in the future,” he says.
Nathan Braaten, Assure
College students have enough on their plates — they shouldn’t have to worry about safety. And with Nathan Braaten’s invention, they won’t have to.
A sophomore majoring in finance, Braaten created a small, discreet button that can be attached to a piece of jewelry, a key ring, backpack, purse or belt loop. The button is paired with the user’s smartphone via the Assure app, and when the button is pressed, the app immediately sends a GPS location and a customized text message to ten predetermined contacts. Assure’s product can be used to call 911 in emergencies or simply help people remove themselves from a potentially dangerous situation. Braaten says his product is intended to reduce these instances and make people feel safer on college campuses and beyond.
Braaten found out about the Next Great Startup competition only two days before the first pitch. To prepare for the whirlwind competition, he stayed in close contact with his advisor from the College of Business’s Innovation X program, Sandra Miller. In between rounds, he interviewed people outside Austin Hall to get their feedback on the product.
Braaten adds that his venture capitalist coach, Julianne Brands, provided encouragement that kept him motivated throughout the competition.
“As an entrepreneur, so many seeds of doubt can creep in,” he says. “Julianne put a lot of belief in us. It gave us a lot of confidence.”
For its second place win, Assure received a prize of $6,900, which included $3,400 in cash and $3,500 in legal services. In addition, the company was admitted into the Advantage Accelerator program for further development.
Assure’s product is in the prototype phase, and Braaten plans to finalize the design soon. Once the app is completed, students at Oregon State and the University of Oregon will beta test the product by wearing it for a couple of weeks and providing feedback.
“Universities will be a huge partner,” Braaten says. “It really benefits both parties because it is making students feel safer and also getting our business out there.”
Ideally, Assure would like to launch its product by the end of the summer. Braaten says he plans to distribute the product to students at freshman orientation, sell them online and eventually in retail locations like college bookstores.
Braaten’s experience in the Next Great Startup competition taught him a lot about balancing school, life and a business venture. He has encouragement for other startups:
“If entrepreneurship is something you really love, the successes and failures won’t really matter,” he says. “And if you put yourself out there, you will get one or two yeses, which will make it all worth it.”
Gabriel Kauffman, GobTech
Gabriel Kauffman started out making a game for fun. Little did he know it would transform into a powerful tool for gaming developers everywhere.
A junior majoring in computer science, Kauffman developed a game based on a neural network — a form of artificial intelligence that uses a mathematical model of the way neurons work in the human brain and nervous system. The neurons connect to one another and allow a computer to learn and execute a task.
“If you have a game, you can set it up to play thousands of times and then tell it that you want it to try and win as much as possible,” Kauffman says. “You give it a task, and it will slowly learn how to achieve it.”
After much experimentation and introducing the game to friends, Kauffman realized that instead of focusing on one game, he could use his neural network to make all kinds of video games more challenging and more fun to play.
GobTech, the company he founded with fellow student, business partner and web developer Ethan Braun, uses Kauffman’s neural network technology to improve the performance of video games. For game developers, GobTech’s technology is less expensive and less time consuming than creating artificial intelligence from scratch.
Not only that, GobTech’s neural net technology can provide more dynamic artificial intelligence than what’s traditionally used. Playing against more intelligent opponents makes for a more challenging and captivating experience for the end user.
Kauffman says learning how to craft the perfect business pitch was one of the most valuable things he learned during the Next Great Startup competition. And his venture capitalist coach, Eric Boothe, gave him some advice that really stuck.
“Eric helped me change my focus from technology to business,” Kauffman says. “He gave me tons of great advice on how to talk about my target audience and how this technology could lead to market opportunity.”
In addition to Boothe, Kauffman worked closely with mentors in the Austin Venture Lab — an experiential course for entrepreneurs in the College of Business — to perfect his pitch.
And to wow the judges, Kauffman released a beta version of his original game, called the Neural Sandbox Beta, on Google Play. The app gives users an opportunity to customize their own neural network using GobTech’s technology. Users can control the personality of a neural network by simply pressing a button, making it accessible to everyone.
With its first-place finish, GobTech won $12,000 in cash and $6,000 in legal services, along with an entry to pitch at the Willamette Angel Conference.
Since participating in the Next Great Startup competition, GobTech took first place at the New Venture Championship Undergraduate Track and has been working on the iOS version of Kauffman’s original game.
Kauffman says the success of his business so far is a direct result of the countless hours he put into developing his technology and crafting an effective business pitch.
“If you take the time to think of literally everything you can do and every opportunity you can take on to be successful, and you do those things, you will be successful,” he says.
Which he did. And then some.
At the end of the Next Great Startup competition, it wasn’t just the judges who were impressed. Eric Boothe, a venture capitalist coach and investor and portfolio manager for Elevate Capital in Portland, says it was great to see the innovators take real feedback and quickly transform it into a winning value proposition.
“Oregon State is very likely the top university in Oregon in terms of sheer volume of innovation happening every single day,” Boothe says. “I was very impressed with the amount of hard research that went into every single innovation that was presented to our group.”
The Next Great Startup is just one way innovations that start here get the support they need to succeed out there.