Although Mizzou’s top three Entrepreneur Quest (EQ) student businesses couldn’t be more different, they share the same goal: To make life better. Their creative solutions in health care, e-commerce and sustainability presented March 31 via Zoom video conferencing won them seed funding for their ventures and a spot in the University of Missouri System EQ final competition.
“We are wrapping up our second year of Entrepreneur Quest with an expanding pipeline of scalable student businesses,” said Bill Turpin, MU interim associate vice chancellor for economic development. “At the UM System EQ finale, Mizzou’s three teams Norah Health, Pollinate and Printerior will compete against teams from UMKC, Missouri S&T and UMSL April 15-16.”
The UM System’s EQ program helps students translate their ideas into viable companies by immersing them in the business world through networking opportunities, mentoring from successful entrepreneurs and real-world experiences with the commercialization process. The four UM System universities organize these campus-level EQ activities, which culminate in the spring with the selection of each school’s three most promising ventures.
Fifty teams applied to be part of this year’s EQ program at Mizzou. A panel of alumni judges awarded spots to 11 after evaluating the top 15 applicants at a Nov. 18 pitch competition. Two teams later dropped out due to time constraints.
“This year’s group of EQ students set a high bar for next year’s program,” said Greg Bier, executive director of entrepreneurship programs at MU. “EQ continues to attract students from across campus, and we are fortunate that our sponsor, the Employees of Veterans United Home Loans, made it possible for us to provide them with funding.”
Winning Mizzou Ventures: Ready for Takeoff
Dan Hoffman, a student in the Trulaske College of Business execMBA program, won first place for Norah Health. The company has developed software that uses machine learning to give health care providers actionable insights to improve a patient’s experience.
As a radiology supervisor at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Hoffman could find a wealth of information about how to treat patients clinically, but noticed a gap in available data to help hospitals improve the overall experience of individual patients.
Currently, Medicare and Medicaid providers are rewarded or penalized financially based on patient satisfaction scores. Many individual clinicians also are incentivized monetarily for earning high scores.
“We’re a predictive tool,” Hoffman said. “The way we set ourselves apart is that we actually give insights to health care providers to use when they are interacting with a patient. All of the competition to date is telling you what your patient said about you, and then they’re leaving it up to the hospital to figure out how to improve.”
Norah Health is now embarking on a clinical trial to test its software system with patients and physicians at the MU Health Care Digestive Health Center. Hoffman said EQ helped him turn his business idea into a reality.
“I learned how important it is to get feedback from your potential customers before taking your product to market,” Hoffman said. “We are going to use our funding to do exactly that. I would encourage all inspiring entrepreneurs at Mizzou to get involved in EQ. It has truly been a game changer for me personally and for my business.”
Second place winner Drew Patel, a computer science major who won for Pollinate, was inspired to create a better package delivery service for emerging economies after experiencing delays and other issues in India. Further research led Patel to focus his efforts on improving e-commerce delivery systems in East Africa.
“Shipping in East Africa is very difficult and expensive,” Patel said during his pitch presentation. “Packages are often late, lost or stolen. Customers won’t order online because last-mile delivery costs are three times more expensive in emerging economies than in U.S. markets.”
E-commerce companies like Amazon are forced to use many different subcontractors in East Africa, making it virtually impossible for customers to track their packages, Patel said. The last mile of the delivery is the most expensive part because landmarks are often used instead of addresses. Pollinate’s solution is an on-demand delivery platform that would allow customers to pick up their packages at their neighborhood market stall instead of paying exorbitant fees for door-to-door delivery.
Pollinate is now partnering with Jumia, the biggest e-commerce company in Africa. Patel plans to use his EQ funding to help recruit drivers for a pilot program that will test Pollinate’s system in Nairobi, Kenya.
“The advice from Greg Bier and Bill Turpin was extremely valuable,” Patel said. “Greg knows about operating in Africa and how to shape a tech pitch for nontechnical judges. Bill knows pretty much everything and everyone in tech fundraising, so he’s given me great advice on how to navigate that landscape.”
Trent Esser, business management, and Hayden Seidel, civil and environmental engineering, founded Printerior based on mutual interests and a desire to solve the world’s plastic problem. They placed third in MU’s competition for their company, which uses 3D printers and recycled plastic to create sustainable furniture.
“We shared a passion for sculpture and design and were always looking for ways to form unique, 3D objects,” Esser said. “And we both thought sustainability was a way to make a difference.”
Printerior uses large-scale adaptive manufacturing techniques to craft custom-made furniture pieces from raw waste plastic or post-industrial plastic sourced from communities and recyclers. Right now, Esser and Seidel, who plan to offer high-end products designed by a host of different designers, are partnering with contacts in the Netherlands to test plastic compounds and optimize their 3D printing equipment.
“Throughout the EQ program I’ve gained a vast amount of knowledge about all of the aspects of starting your own business,” Seidel said. “I would say the most impactful part of the program was having the guest speakers come in every week and talk about their experiences in starting their own businesses.”
At the beginning of the spring semester, MU’s nine EQ teams honed their ventures with help from coaches, workshops, the School of Law’s Entrepreneurship Legal Clinic and other resources. Less than a week before the program’s second pitch event, the university began operating remotely due to the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Instead of presenting before a live audience, students uploaded narrated pitch decks for judges, who narrowed the field to three teams. Those three teams then presented their pitches live on Zoom for six new judges.
“I couldn’t be prouder of this year’s winning teams,” said Bier. “Given the changing circumstances of working remotely and having to present their pitch decks through a live virtual platform, these teams proved they were able to handle the difficult challenges entrepreneurs face.”
The judges for the live portion of Mizzou’s pitch competition were Kathleen Bruegenhemke, chief operations and risk officer, Hawthorn Bank; Brant Bukowsky, BS Education ’00, co-founder, Veterans United Home Loans; Stacey Button, president, Columbia Regional Economic Development Inc.; Robert Griggs, BS Ag, ’77, president of Trinity Products; Melinda McCubbin, owner of Truman Wealth Advisors and director of Equity Investments at Shelter Insurance; and James Whitt, director supplier Diversity Program Development for the City of Columbia.
MU worked with Relevant Youth, a student-run adverting agency, to help promote this year’s EQ program. “I found it very interesting to see students around my age creating businesses with so much passion and intention,” said account manager and business major Ava Debord.
Watch how the EQ program has helped accelerate student businesses in this video produced by Relevant Youth.
Click images to view EQ posters of Mizzou’s nine student teams created by Relevant Youth.