Freshman Raina Jain hit a trifecta with her QueenBee immune support supplement.
Not only did she create a delicious and healthy supplemental beverage for consumers, she also found a way to help save the bees, and won the School of Business’ Innovation Quest (iQ) competition at the same time.
In high school, Jain worked on a science research project to try to eliminate varroa mites from honeybee hives. While studying the insects, she learned about their nutritional byproducts and started consuming honey and propolis, sometimes called ‘bee glue,’ straight out of the hive, mixing it with ginger and turmeric.
“I felt instant energy, and became so much more focused,” said Jain, a Greenwich, Conn. native. She went looking for similar products on the market but was unable to find any.
“As for the formulation, I have been perfecting this recipe for years in my kitchen, so developing the formula was pretty straightforward,” she said. “Finding a manufacturer, however, was a whole other ordeal.”
Jain, an engineering major, will use her $15,000 grand prize winnings to sign with a distributor and launch retail sales. She will plant a pollinator tree for every bottle sold.
From a young age, Jain said, she had many ideas for businesses, but lacked the connections or the knowledge about how to take them to the next level. That’s one of the reasons she was eager to participate in the iQ competition.
“One of the biggest things I learned was how to present and pitch and the importance of communication,” Jain said. “Having an amazing product is not enough. You have to show your passion, and get other people to feel it.”
The competition also introduced her to a network of supporters and a collaborative team to cheer her accomplishments.
“I learned to never hesitate to reach out to people,” she said. “When I first applied to UConn, I was worried that, at a college with 30,000 other students, I wouldn’t get the individual attention needed to take my business to the next level. Instead, I’ve gotten more than ever in my life. Professor David Noble always tells me to never be afraid of asking for resources or opportunities. The worst you can get is a ‘no.’ Whenever I’ve done that, someone has always responded and helped take me, and my business, to the next level. I’ve developed lifelong mentors. I would not be at this point with my business without them.”
Eclectic Startups Take Home the Awards
Jain is sharing the spotlight with two other promising startups.
Sedentary Medical Solutions LLC, known as SedMed, offers a toilet-lift assist product to help reduce the fall risk for an elderly or disabled person. The company was founded last year by engineering alumni Tim Krupski, ’15 and Jeremy Bronen ’20.
The idea came to fruition after Krupski saw a close elderly family friend struggle with mobility after suffering from a stroke. The SedMed Toilet Lift Assist was designed to mount directly onto any toilet to help a user sit and stand when using the bathroom. The device also prevents caregivers from getting injured and restores independence and dignity to the user.
The team won second place and a $10,000 stipend.
“The cash award is imperative to launch our pilot program in which we will manufacture 30 units to field test at eldercare facilities,” Krupski said. “This pilot program is a crucial step in our next six- to 12-months as it will allow us to refine the product further and provide the traction we need to fuel sales.”
“In my experience the most valuable lesson learned from the iQ program came from mentor sessions in which our team learned the importance of connecting with and learning from our customers,” said Krupski, who is completing both a master’s degree in engineering and an MBA at UConn. “Listening to our customers’ needs helped guide every decision from branding to sales channels.”
“IQ and the other UConn entrepreneurial programs have given our team the tools and support to launch our startup,” he said. “Having a team of mentors ranging from legal to marketing to finance has given us the confidence we need to surpass the roadblocks that early-stage entrepreneurs face.”
Third place winners Jake Winter and Massyl Mallem, both engineering majors, are founders of Patent Plus, an artificial intelligence-driven software tool that helps inventors understand if their invention is novel by using easy-to-use, interactive process.
“It feels absolutely amazing to be one of the top teams,” Winter said. “Massyl and I have had our sights on winning IQ since the moment we stepped on campus. We have participated in numerous entrepreneurial programs at UConn and we always viewed iQ as a really big step up. The fact that it was a great challenge got us really excited and led us to rise to the challenge. With the help of the IQ mentors, we were really able to craft a pitch that appealed to an experienced audience.”
The company’s next step is to go all-in on product development and validation.
One of the biggest take-aways from the iQ program is that ‘less is more,’ Winter said. “With a technically complex idea, pitching it as simply as possible is key. If you can understand your key points of value and who these apply to, including your customers, you are most of the way there.”
Without the entrepreneurial ecosystem at UConn, the company would not be where it is now, he said. “UConn has made a massive expansion to its entrepreneurial ecosystem and most started during our freshman year. Being able to take part in this great infrastructural formation has been amazing and incredibly beneficial,” he said. The iQ mentors were versed at tackling the in-depth problems a new entrepreneur will face, he added.
Pandemic Didn’t Diminish Quality of Startups
Despite the challenges of holding the competition during a pandemic, requiring presentations to be conducted virtually, the competition produced incredible results, said alumnus Keith Fox ’80, who created the iQ competition at UConn.
“This marks the 10th year of the UConn iQ program. I could not be more proud of the students, the volunteer mentors and judges, and the entire leadership team at the University,” Fox said. “The quality of the applications has improved each and every year, and even with the pandemic, this year was no different. In fact, I would argue the move to more online coaching has actually increased student team productivity and mentor participation and engagement.
“My hope was that this program would light the fire of entrepreneurial activity across the university, for all students,” he continued. “That hope has been more than met, with student participation and the creation of an entire ecosystem of programs for them, not only on the Storrs campus, but throughout the state.”
Professor Rich Dino, who has led the program for nine years, said the organizers and advisers are impressed with the improvement in the quality of the ideas presented over the years, but even more so with the level of entrepreneurial knowledge and skill sets that the students bring to iQ.
“As compared to years gone by, students arrive further along in their journey,” Dino said. “Their ability to discuss market opportunities, customer needs, competitive offerings, and gaps in the marketplace is very impressive. Many have already developed prototypes and engaged in customer discovery.”
“This places teams further along in their journey, and provides us with the opportunity to help get them to market much faster,” Dino said. “Such outcomes are directly related to the significant investment by UConn as a whole, and the Business School in particular, in innovation and entrepreneurship courses and programs that are available to all university students, no matter their discipline. It has been, and remains, an absolute privilege to work alongside these very bright and driven students as they transform into entrepreneurs.”
Fox said their success will have broad ramifications in a state eager to grow entrepreneurship.
“I could not be happier to see this happen for all the students who want to pursue their hopes, dreams, and aspirations as inventors and entrepreneurs,” Fox said. “The citizens of Connecticut, and specifically the parents of these students, should be very proud.”