2016 Newark Innovation Acceleration Challenge Welcomes Rising Entrepreneurs

Written by: Julie Jacobs,
(Left to right) NIAC's four community-track winners, MTSM's Michael Ehrlich, and Capitol One Bank Vice Presidents for Business Banking Mark Charbonneau and Chris Schanck.
The challenge is open to students from Newark-area colleges and universities as well as Newark regional community members.

It was rainy and gray outside, but inside NJIT’s Campus Center Atrium and Ballroom “B” bright minds gathered to pitch their proposed businesses and products at the ninth annual Newark Innovation Acceleration Challenge (NIAC) — think Shark Tank meets The Apprentice. The event, held Nov. 30, was sponsored by the New Jersey Innovation Acceleration Center (NJIAC) and NJIT’s Martin Tuchman School of Management (MTSM), with support from Capital One Bank, which has backed NIAC since its beginning.

With business ideas and products flooding the market, NIAC provides a valuable opportunity for entrepreneurs to learn how to define the need for their business or product, determine their target audience, outline the best solution, develop their value proposition, and compete in the marketplace. The challenge is open to students from Newark-area colleges and universities as well as Newark regional community members, who have eight minutes to present to a panel of judges external to NJIT. Following their pitches, they field questions from the judges and receive advice for taking their idea from concept to reality. Winners receive a $3,000 summer fellowship to continue the development of their idea.

NIAC has “gotten bigger and better,” remarked Michael Ehrlich, associate professor of finance, MTSM, who co-directs NJIAC with Judith Sheft, associate vice president of technology and enterprise development.

Reggie Caudill, dean, MTSM, noted that “innovation has many pieces to it and along the way you’ve got to have help.” He emphasized the need for having mentors, being technically competent with business knowledge, and staying fully engaged. “The key ingredient is passion,” he added.

Student finalists represented NJIT and Rutgers. This year’s winners were Pavan Bugude, third place for Walnot, a high-tech wallet; Hashir Qazi, second place for Lasso Loop, an app for truckers; and David Lo, first place for ExaLight, a light solution for neonatal jaundice.

Lo volunteers in the neonatal and neonatal-intensive care units at St. Peter’s University Hospital, and has observed the anguish of parents who are unable to hold their babies because the infants have jaundice. A family friend also faced this difficulty and ultimately inspired Lo to design a special blanket that incorporates a light source capable of breaking down bilirubin, a high level of which causes jaundice. Perhaps most important, the blanket allows parents to hold and bond with their babies.

The NIAC fellowship prize will help Lo pay for a range of fees associated with patents, manufacturing, fulfillment and more as he moves ahead with ExaLight. Participating in NIAC “was very enlightening,” said Lo, a B.S./M.B.S. student at Rutgers, who added that the recognition will “motivate me and my team to work even harder.” 

Winners from the community track were Salil Sethi, fourth place for GoSchoolWise, an artificial-intelligence platform for high school guidance counselors; Jennifer Griffith, third place for School Money, focused on scholarship crowdsourcing; Jennagloria Pacheco, second place for Sweet Glori’s Desserts, vegan and allergy-free sweets; and Nestor Velez, first place for SanoMind, affordable recorded mental-health services.

Pacheco grew up with food allergies and has been developing Sweet Glori’s Desserts while working full time as a regulatory-affairs consultant for a medical-device company. There “aren’t many products on the market for food restrictions that are really appealing to the eye,” said Pacheco. She found the challenge to be an interesting opportunity and one that will enable her to improve upon her weaknesses and build her strengths as she grows her business.

“Being an entrepreneur is really hard work… It’s not for everybody,” Ehrlich commented before announcing the winners. “I saw lots of heart in these presentations.”