UConn Students Jorgensen And Shah Take First Place At Startup Weekend

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The University of Connecticut's first Startup Weekend turned the seed of a business plan into a viable company – in just 54 hours. Uconn Seniors in Computer Science, Andrew Jorgensen and Hemel Shah took first place for their idea, Platforum, and plan to continue to develop the business.

The University of Connecticut's first Startup Weekend attracted talented men and women of all ages to the campus to accomplish a remarkable feat: turning the seed of a business plan into a viable company – in just 54 hours.

The unique blend of ambition, education and fortune makes Startup Weekend unique among business plan competitions as attendees experience the full gamut of building a start-up company in microcosm by brainstorming, developing and pitching business plans - all in one weekend. Startup weekend statistics also indicate that one in three of the ideas developed at a weekend event go on to become successful businesses.

Those who attended the UConn conference - Connecticut’s third, following a Hartford and a New Haven convention - were each allowed 60 seconds to pitch a business plan in an open mic forum at the outset of the competition, then vote on their favorite pitches. The entrepreneurs behind the 13 highest-ranked ideas formed teams with other attendees - many of whom they were meeting for the first time.

Immediately after coming together, the teams began preparing for the final competition - five minutes to pitch their business plan to a panel of judges.

Mentors spent Friday evening, Saturday and most of the day Sunday meeting with each of the 13 groups, offering their expert advice. Teasing out the perfect business model required a lot of back-and-forth discussion between the mentors and team members.

UConn students won two of the three grand prizes including a first place award to Platforum, a mobile forum-consolidation app developed by the partnership of computer science seniors Andrew Jorgensen and Hemel Shah.

On Sunday night, each of the 13 groups had five minutes to pitch their idea to a panel of five judges - including Kevin Bouley, the president and CEO of Tolland-based Nerac, Inc., and Mary Anne Rooke, director of the Technology Incubation Forum at UConn’s Avery Point campus.

“Raise your hand if you’ve ever done a Google search to find an answer to your problem.” That was the opening for the pitch by team Platforum.

Every hand in the audience went up.

Jorgensen and Shah then went on to explain that their research showed that for every question typed into Google, 75% of the top results are forums - online communities where experienced users answer questions posed by novices. This was the germ for the idea behind Platforum.

The company’s plan: to aggregate nearly 200,000 of the most highly-trafficked forums and make them accessible through a user-friendly mobile app interface. The value is easily consumable, on-the-go access to a broad and expanding spectrum of expert advice.
“Product development is about more than just great ideas,” Jorgensen remarked. “You can have a super cool idea but to turn it into a product that people want you have to attack a problem from every possible angle and it's really important to take in other people’s perspectives.”

The judges’ immediately zeroed in on the financial details, asking Jorgensen to clarify how much money he expected the venture to earn - and how quickly he expected it to break even. “Our business model relies on tapping into a proven revenue stream,” responded Jorgensen. “We know that forums use ad revenue as their primary source of income and that the range is $100K - $500K per year per forum. An average forums sees 10 – 15% of their queries from mobile devices. Using this information and traditional ad splits, our models show an average stream of $16K per year per forum. We estimate break even at 50 forums which is only a 3% market penetration.”

Each grand prize winner received $250 and the promise of server space and hardware from Softlayer, a company that provides Internet hosting. The winners can use this server space to host their Web sites and their company servers.

Jorgensen and Shah said they are already planning to continue with Platforum, and had begun securing partners and investors through conversations started during the weekend.

About Startup Weekend

Startup Weekend, http://www.startupweekend.org, is a global non-profit organization funded by the Hoffman Foundation sponsoring competitions in which teams have 54 hours to conceive a business concept and take to prototype and be judged by a panel of industry experts. Beginning with open mic pitches on Friday, attendees bring their best ideas and inspire others to join their team. Over Saturday and Sunday teams focus on customer development, validating their ideas, practicing LEAN Startup Methodologies and building a minimal viable product. On Sunday evening teams demo their prototypes and receive valuable feedback from a panel of experts. According to Danny Briere, the Connecticut liaison with Startup America, the organization is planning another Startup Weekend in Stamford, but has yet to release a date or location.

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Margaret Thompson
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