Innovation News

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A tale of two young entrepreneurs

Brian Bischoff and Oscar Lee have a lot going on. One of their companies, SmartPrint 3D, is relocating within the Buffalo area after winning an award this past fall; another, FlexMuch, is bringing to market a disposable bottle for mixing fitness supplements. On top of that, they’ve just launched a podcast aimed at helping to motivate and educate would-be entrepreneurs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the partners give the impression of being tightly knit. Bischoff, who is an engineer by training, says he deals primarily with product development, while Lee handles marketing and administration.

The pair bonded in college over their shared interest in business and later became roommates. Bischoff’s first venture was driven by a prosaic student goal: finding money to pay for alcohol. After learning to cut hair, he started his own business, which eventually led to managerial experience at a local establishment.

The seeds of FlexMuch were planted when the pair noticed a common complaint at the gym: The reusable shaker bottles that bodybuilders used to mix powdered protein supplements had to be carted around and cleaned out after every use, and they often retained smells and residues. Seeing a business opportunity, they searched for disposable shaker bottles that they could purchase wholesale and resell. None of the disposable bottles on the market completely satisfied them, but they settled on one, and nearly took out a loan to purchase a shipment. The deal fell through when the seller gave them paperwork naming costlier terms than those he had offered over the phone.

Frustrated, they turned to developing their own disposable shaker bottle, but found that professional prototyping was beyond the reach of their budget. Bischoff bought a 3D printer and set about designing a bottle in AutoCAD.

“Our first three prints weren’t even watertight,” Lee recalled. But as Bischoff’s skills improved, people asked him to design things for them, and he started posting to Craigslist, snagging odd jobs. He said he wasn’t making much money, but was essentially getting paid to learn. “Eventually, we started getting so many offers…[that] Oscar pointed out that it would be strategic for us to work together on this,” Bischoff said. They formed a second company, SmartPrint 3D, to handle the orders and monetize their know-how.

After the pair graduated and found employment, FlexMuch got put on the backburner. However, they were still thinking up inventions, and they opened SmartPrint 3D as a brick-and-mortar store, offering repairs on 3D printers as well as products and services for sale. To keep overhead low—Bischoff said that competing with Amazon meant slim margins—they opened the store by appointment only, which Lee said gave them time to work on their other ideas.

The FlexWater disposable shaker bottle went through “nearly 15 iterations,” they note, before they finalized a shape that would create a dual vortex to quickly mix powders. The pair ran a Kickstarter campaign for the shaker bottle in December 2017, which failed to meet its goal. Lee said that this was due to prohibitive shipping costs. Both partners were sanguine about the campaign and are considering next steps. “The biggest thing right now is to get the samples and show people it works,” so that they can get the right investor, Bischoff said. They have faith that the product itself is both sound and salable. Bischoff pointed out that it has applications beyond the fitness industry, such as for mixing powdered baby formula.

Meanwhile, SmartPrint 3D has continued to branch out. The company recently developed a thermoplastic filament that won an award at the Defense TechConnect expo in Tampa in October. As a result, Bischoff said, they have closed the brick-and-mortar and are relocating nearby with an eye toward government contracts and a strategic partnership. Their biggest challenge has been figuring out which of their many ideas to focus on next. He said that Brad Gouldthorpe of Launch NY has been particularly helpful. “He helped us prioritize, saw the right things to do, where to invest—we are so thankful for what Launch NY is doing for us. It’s changed our company vision.”

Bischoff is originally from Staten Island, but has no interest in returning there. “I own my own house,” he said, which wouldn’t be possible in New York City. “At 24 years old, to own your own house and be running businesses, that’s insane.” He said there are upsides and downsides, but overall, Buffalo has provided what he needs at a great price. He has joined the board of the Western New York InventionConvention, an annual competition for local students, and said he would love to partner with UB to establish a summer camp where children can learn engineering skills.

In addition to growing their businesses, Bischoff works full time as a second-shift engineer. “Right now if I’m awake, I’m working,” he said. Lee said that he sometimes regrets quitting his full-time job to work on the companies because they don’t yet have steady income, “so you have to take every day and see what’s important, paying bills or getting a grant application out.” He works part time now in addition to developing the companies. Still, he said, “The freedom to make the choices and do what you want every day is absolutely worth it.”

Given their years of investment and work, the pair are skeptical of promises of easy success—so skeptical, in fact, that they recently started a podcast specifically to offer a realistic picture of what it means to start a business. “Basically, I’m tired of seeing all these people online trying to pitch that you can be an entrepreneur overnight,” Bischoff explained. Lee concurred, saying, “People think it takes overnight to get where we’re at and then another week to make a million dollars.” He added that they learned a lot from podcasts and motivational books, as well as Facebook groups for people to share ideas and ask for help.

Their podcast will host a new entrepreneur each week. Bischoff said, “I wanted to get the word out there from other entrepreneurs that are starting up businesses, that have been doing it for maybe five years—they’re not millionaires yet, but they want to be.” Technology offers an attractive narrative of instant riches, but the market also changes so fast that “what worked last month might not work this month in business. I wanted to be that middle ground saying you can do it [if] you put in the work and time.”

Conscientiously, he added, “Fair warning, we do curse a bit. I want to engage people, and we do get excited.”

For two UB student entrepreneurs, it’s bootstrap or bust

Sometimes, raising capital means capitalizing on what’s in front of you. It’s called bootstrapping, and that’s the approach two University at Buffalo students have taken as they grow their unique startup.

Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter can help, but Bernard Cohen and Joseph Ricciardi – the brains behind a golf-inspired game called Chip-Down – have gotten a bigger boost by also taking advantage of the numerous pitch competitions available at UB.

“That has been the biggest driving factor to our success so far,” says Cohen, Chip-Down’s CEO.

Cohen and Chip-Down Chief Operating Officer Ricciardi, both 22, love to play golf, but they admit their skills aren’t the best. That’s how they came up with Chip-Down, a portable game billed as “golf for the non-golfer.” It’s designed to be played anywhere, by anyone.

Players take turns using a specially designed golf club to chip a birdie from a chipping mat into the assembled target, positioned midway between the two mats. Similar to Kan-Jam, another locally invented and wildly popular backyard game, there are two ways to win Chip-Down: be the first team to score 21 points, or chip the birdie into the center hole for an automatic win.

Cohen and Ricciardi are both in the fifth year of the mechanical engineering/MBA program at UB. Cohen is originally from Goshen, N.Y., while Ricciardi is an Albany native. To date, they have won $27,000 in pitch competitions.

“We’re always looking for different pitch competitions. They’re a great way for new businesses to secure funding,” Cohen said. “It costs you nothing other than your time, and you can get a huge payout from it.”

Their first success came last spring, when they placed second among 33 teams and won $10,000 in the Henry A. Panasci Jr. Technology Entrepreneurship Competition, which is run annually by UB’s School of Management.

Next, they won $15,000 after pitching Chip-Down at the end of Yong Li’s Entrepreneur Lab course, also offered through UB’s School of Management.

“Both of those competitions were within one month of each other,” Ricciardi said. “That kick started us for this past summer. We were able to get our manufacturing going, file for a patent, and just get the business growing.”

Adds Cohen: “The fact that we were able to utilize the resources at UB was so helpful. People don’t realize what they can do when they’re in school and what they have access to. It’s a matter of being aware of what’s available and staying connected.”

Cohen and Ricciardi kept the momentum going this fall with a successful Kickstarter campaign that helped them raise more capital. They hit their $12,000 goal within six days before the campaign leveled off. Chip-Down raised $14,051 through Kickstarter. The Chip-Down co-founders sought out the crowdfunding and startup expertise of 19 IDEAS’ Dan Gigante and Thimble’s Oscar Pedroso for their Kickstarter campaign, which concluded Oct. 14.

“They were both really helpful throughout the whole Kickstarter process,” said Cohen. “We’re excited to use the money to move the business forward. We learned a ton about marketing our product and getting the name out there.

In addition to helping startups corral much-needed capital, Kickstarter often can also generate valuable social media buzz. While that didn’t happen to the extent Cohen and Ricciardi had hoped for, the campaign did help them better connect with potential customers.
Two different social media content companies approached Chip-Down about purchasing paid posts, but those run $10,000. “A lot of startups that get viral campaigns also have additional capital they can invest into marketing, so they can get paid buys on social media,” Ricciardi explained.

Cohen and Ricciardi gained another valuable experience a few weeks ago when they traveled to New York City to attend the Blackstone LaunchPad Techstars Training Camp. Blackstone LaunchPad is a campus-based entrepreneurship program available at colleges and universities around the country, including UB.

“The biggest thing we learned at the camp was something we haven’t been doing, and that’s defining our market and figuring out exactly who we’re supposed to be targeting,” says Cohen. They’ll be focusing on collecting that data over the next few months.

And they’ll continue working to garner more interest in Chip-Down through pitch competitions.

Both readily admit they still have a lot to figure out. But they’ve also learned some valuable lessons that they’re happy to share with other aspiring entrepreneurs.

Says Cohen: “Listen to everything people have to say. Get feedback and suggestions. You don’t have to take it all, but just listen. It might completely change your business, and it might change your life. You never know when someone will give you an opportunity.”

Adds Ricciardi: “Confidence. If you don’t have it, it will be tough to get people interested.”



5 lessons learned during Startup Weekend

Where can you spend 54 hours with hundreds of aspiring entrepreneurs, business coaches, and venture capitalists?

Welcome to Buffalo Startup Weekend, an event designed to provide superior experiential education for entrepreneurs. Beginning with Friday night pitches and continuing through brainstorming, business plan development, and basic prototype creation, participants create working startups during the event and are able to collaborate with like-minded individuals outside of their daily networks. All teams hear talks by industry leaders and receive valuable feedback from local entrepreneurs. The weekend is centered on action, innovation, and education.

Here are five lessons I learned during the event:

Lesson 1: People are your greatest resource, but communication is key.

I'm a student and practitioner of behavioral psychology, so this event was like a social experiment for me. The audience was primarily millennials and multicultural, a diverse group of marketers, engineers, developers, coders, and software engineers. They represented the four distinct personality types, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and motivations. Some are self-starters who take initiative and execute. Others are task-oriented and prefer a list to work from. Some follow up, others need to be managed. Some are focused, others easily distracted. When you have a team that comprises the full spectrum of these personality types, working together for the first time, communication can be a challenge, because they won’t tell you how they prefer to work. But this diversity can be a benefit, if you have collaboration, communication, organization, delegation, project management, people management, time optimization, emotional intelligence, and leadership skills.

Lesson 2: When planning, research is your friend.

Use market data to prove you know your industry inside out, including key competitors and market opportunity, and reference social proof and market intelligence from people in the field.

You can use analytics tools to extract your competitors’ marketing tactics, tools, costs, and traffic trends in a matter of moments. Tools are your friends, and analytics are awesome, if you know how to search, sort, and filter the results.

Lesson 3: Presentation matters.

Use the 10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint. It’s quite simple: a pitch should have 10 slides, last no more than 20 minutes, and contain no font smaller than 30 points. Other keys to a powerful presentation:

  • Use a clever intro that speaks to the problem in the form of a question and uses the customers’ language.

  • Keep it simple. Use high-quality graphics and appropriate charts that show trends and peak emotion.

  • Know your audience and engage them from the opening slide.

  • Have a sequential and strategic flow. Explain the customer journey in the form of a story where you answer the most common objections.

  • Use customer voice (testimonials, survey results) to prove market demand and perceived value.

  • Practice your pitch so you have a comfortable pace and smooth delivery.

Lesson 4: Be a student.

The best students are the best teachers. If you document your process and ask for feedback early and often, your growth during the startup process should be rapid, if you are willing to learn and keep an open mind. Be agile, nimble, and ready to pivot. It's important that you have a strong belief and integrity at your core. There will be countless ideas, opinions, and suggestions coming your way, and you’ll need to know which best align with your vision.

Lesson 5: Community and connections can make all the difference.

The startup and entrepreneurial scene is a small circle. I tell college students to go out and show people how they work, instead of telling them. This same advice goes for entrepreneurs.

Through experiential learning and networking, you meet people you would otherwise never meet. You showcase your vocational and social skills. You become member of a community that may cause you to collide with a future co-founder, employee, contractor, customer, or friend.

During Startup Weekend, business coaches, successful entrepreneurs, and venture capitalist are waiting for you to ask questions, so be sure that the questions you ask are open-ended and probing. Actively listen to the answers you receive, take notes, and reflect on what you hear. Engage these experts’ minds, challenge their thoughts, and pull knowledge out of them.

Remember, it's easy to start a business. It's much harder to offer a product/service that people will pay for. Learning from lessons like these can help you develop a minimum viable product/service that you can bring to market, acquire customers, and build a team and culture that supports your business goals. Then, you can ride off into the sunset of profitability and prosperity.

UB entrepreneurship festival nurtures innovative ideas

The resources and support available to University at Buffalo students and alums developing their own business ideas were on full display at the Student Union Sept. 14. The inaugural Entrepreneurs Festival hosted by UB’s Blackstone LaunchPad chapter brought demonstrations and networking opportunities with UB alums to the school’s North Campus. Lloyd’s Taco Factory co-founder Pete Cimino participated in a Q&A segment with students, and the festival concluded with a business pitch competition that sent two teams to New York City to present their startup business plans in a national competition.

“We want to celebrate innovation and creativity on campus, but we also want to encourage our students to pursue their passions,” UB Blackstone LaunchPad program director Hadar Borden said. “And we want to help them understand how they can take their ideas and their research and turn it into a startup.”

Over the din of the Student Union lunchtime crowd, more than a dozen business owners, many of them UB alums, presented their startups and spoke about entrepreneurship with students. Amber Small, co-founder of jam Parkside café in Buffalo, gave the opening remarks, and businesses ranging from tech startups to beauty product boutiques were represented.

The event was sponsored by Colligan Law, LLP and Allstate Minority and Women Emerging Entrepreneurs.

Also represented at the event was the 43North business plan competition and resource organization and Z80 labs business incubator. Companies represented include Zandra Beauty, founded by 17-year old Azariah Cunningham when she was just 9, and Statdash, a tech startup founded by Mark Nusbaum and Pam Nelligan.

“Honestly, I think it takes the mystique out of it. I remember when I was a student here at this very same college, going to events like this. Being involved in business seemed to be very daunting to me,” Small said. “When you see all these different entrepreneurs, all these different startups and you see how varied they are, how unique the people involved are, and then when you also see all the different areas that are available for support, I think it really boosts your ability to get involved yourself.”

Blackstone LaunchPad is a national, grant-funded organization represented on universities across the country that provides resources like workshops, venture coaching, and pitch competitions to students and alumni developing business plans. One of those competitions is PitchWars, which was held at the end of the UB Entrepreneurs Festival between six student teams.

Each team made five minute pitches in front of a panel of five judges. The winners were Bernard Cohen and Joseph Ricciardi, students who presented their Chip-Down backyard golf game, and Abid Alam and Elijah Tyson, co-founders of Coldspace food storage for university students on campus. The two winning teams will travel to New York City to compete in the Tech Stars national competition.

Pete Cimino, co-founder of the popular Lloyd’s Taco Factory and food trucks, participated in a Q&A session, interviewed by UB student Matthew Rivera. Cimino spoke about the risk he took in developing his business model, the challenges he faced initially to bring one of the first food trucks to the city, and what inspires him as an entrepreneur. He also commented on how he got involved in the popular CNBC television show “Restaurant Startup,” and the difficult decision he made to turn down the winnings, which would have forced him to give up some control of the company.

But UB business owners represented at the festival, from tech company founders to recreational business owners, had one consistent message: Anyone thinking of following their dream to start a business can’t be afraid to take a risk.

“There’s always that fear to fail. I guess you don’t really overcome it. You carry on in spite of it. There’s always that worry there,” Small, a UB alum said. “We’re seeing a lot more people involved in the small business community, involved in startups, and a lot of that is because of the support that has been coming up in this ecosystem. There are so many different resources available. And that wasn’t available before,” she added.

And if you are willing to take that first step in pursuing a business idea, there is a network of resources locally to guide you through the process, especially for University at Buffalo students.

“We know this is a difficult journey for a 22-year-old or a 55-year-old,” Borden said. “Having that mentorship, the guidance is really important.”


What you need to know about the Innovation Center

The Thomas R. Beecher, Jr. Innovation Center, located at 640 Ellicott St. in downtown Buffalo, is the largest business incubator in Buffalo. The LEED-certified research and development space houses life sciences and biotech companies, as well as companies offering support services like IP attorneys, talent acquisition, sales, and marketing. The growing space is designed to accommodate small to medium companies seeking office, wet lab and/or research space, on a month-to-month basis or via longer term leases, and is located in the heart of the thriving Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

In addition to traditional lease space, the suites at the Innovation Center offer physical and virtual office space on a month-to-month basis. Offices are fully furnished with telephones and internet access included, offering a “plug ‘n’ play” space that is perfect for entrepreneurs and small businesses.

During a recent tour, several aspects of the center were highlighted:

DIG (Design Innovation Garage): DIG is the region’s largest venue for coworking. It offers affordable workspace, access to mentors, and opportunity for collaboration within a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem, so entrepreneurs can share ideas, build business models, work on new projects, and collaborate. DIG also provides event space, and has become recognized as the prominent gathering spot for the startup community in Buffalo.


Shared office space: Offices and work stations that include turn-key amenities are available in dedicated suites for those seeking a more private work environment for themselves or their growing company. The menu of office options is designed to be flexible and cost effective. They provide the furniture and technology – you just go to work. Offices are available on a monthly rental basis - no long-term leases required.


Wet labs: A full range of wet lab spaces across Buffalo’s Medical Campus is available for chemical and biological research, testing, and pilot production. Dry lab spaces for applications in bioinformatics and light assembly of medical devices are also available. Most labs include shared core services, which are accessed through partnerships with research institutions and clinics on the campus.


Idea Lab: also known as i4 Studio, is a creative space where new ideas are born and applied for the purpose of making the world a better place to live, work, and play. It is staffed by educators and trained practitioners well-versed in creative thinking.


Event space: The Innovation Center houses many networking and educational events. It’s the go-to place in Buffalo to network and learn from other startups, established businesses, and people looking to help grow companies in Buffalo.


Supporting more than 120 companies in three buildings, this self-contained ecosystem provides an ideal environment for idea generators, business modelers, startup companies, service providers, and scaling, post-launch businesses.

How cities are leading hubs for women entrepreneurs (and why Buffalo is no exception)

According to Forbes and the annual Dell Women Entrepreneur Cities Index (WE Cities), statistics show that cities are on the leading edge of closing the gender gap. And Buffalo is no exception to that trend.


Look no further than Buffalo attorney Rachel Jackson’s Rachel’s Remedies for an example. Jackson. While dealing with inflammation from breastfeeding while running her own law firm, Jackson invented a soothing product which has won her pitch competition prizes and a distribution partnership with Dr. Brown’s.


Or watch Niagara Falls native Ann Hogan, whose Fry Baby Donuts have brought a vegan style sweet treat to Elmwood. Hogan told UpstartNY that part of what drives her is an “obligation to combat this notion of female inadequacy that exists in workplaces, especially in a food service setting.”


“Our staff is mostly women and I'd be lying if I said it doesn't feel good to look around and see that we were able to build a work environment where as women, we are aware of how microaggressions and workplace biases can take a toll and make a job suck,” she says. “It feels good not really worrying about whether or not your coworkers respect your opinions or actually take you seriously.”


Then there are Emily Stewart and Allison Ewing, founders of the cooperative BreadHive. Stewart says the organization's commitment to diversity starts with “ who you're hiring."


"We look at our space as an opportunity for us to share what we are doing," she says.


Don’t forget Ulla Bak, co-founder of Bak USA, which is bringing manufacturing jobs back to Buffalo. Bak tablets are high-tech products built in the U.S.A., by a workforce composed of immigrants and refugees who speak more than 22 languages.The emphasis is on cultivating a healthy workforce,


"We would rather have a good work climate than optimal production," Bak says.


Many more Buffalo examples of women entrepreneurs abound.


Lighthouse Financial Asset Management, LLC is a Buffalo company owned by Kelly O’Neill. She provides consulting services and customized and simplified financial strategies.


Iraqi refugee Nadeen Yousef opened Macrame by Nadeen in the West Side Bazaar on Grant Street. Launching her business with only a single item she has since developed her inventory greatly.


Paula D’Amico is a woman of many talents but most noticeably she is the owner/creator of Blessings by Nature® and the current president of the Holistic Chamber of Commerce-Downtown Buffalo.


Sue and Ciara Morreale are a mother/daughter duo who established Her Story, a boutique shop located on Elmwood Avenue. The shop sells items that encourage inner strength and female empowerment.

The city of Buffalo is home to many women both up-and-coming and well-established in the entrepreneurial world, and we at UpstartNY look forward to telling all of their stories.

IVR Technology Group launches PrestoPhone, Buffalo's first unified communications as a service

IVR Technology Group, who recently merged with Buffalo’s startup foundry Argyle Technology Group, announced on August 8th the first major product launch of the merged company, PrestoPhone.

The product is a full-featured VoIP (Voice over IP) phone platform hosted in the cloud, with all of IVR Technology Group’s products available as add-on services and integration with popular CRM and productivity software from companies like SAP, Salesforce, Microsoft, and others.

“PrestoPhone is the culmination of our nearly 20 years of building, acquiring and integrating IVR and voice technologies,” says Akash Desai, President of IVR Technology Group. “Now we can offer one platform that ties together everything we do from advanced IVR menus to pay-by-phone and call tracking.” Akash is also quick to note that PrestoPhone is a product known as UCaaS or Unified Communications as a Service.

According to Akash, a customer such as a municipal utility company would use PrestoPhone to unify all their voice communications under one service which can include all their people in the field with tremendous improvements in efficiency. And since PrestoPhone can connect to their Oracle customer database, it can be used to send payment notifications, service disruption notifications, accept payments over the phone, send out surveys and more. “With everything under one platform,” Akash continues, “we can offer dramatic cost savings to our customers.”

A relatively new enterprise software category for the cloud, UCaaS was first coined in 2014 and has rapidly become a global industry trend. With Gartner projecting that the cloud computing market will swell to $162 billion in just three years, it’s one of the fastest growing technology trends. Now Buffalo has a new flag in that market.

Peeva launches beta-test partnership with 150 vets to help find lost pets

Peeva, a Buffalo startup who recently gave their semi-final pitch to 43North, has announced an important milestone in their development. The company is launching a beta-test program with the National Veterinary Association (NVA) that involves more than 150 veterinary hospitals.

Currently, there are four major brands of pet ID chips in the United States, with even more throughout Europe. Few veterinary hospitals, clinics, and rescues have the ability to scan all available brands. The company’s product solves this problem with the first universal RFID scanner that can read all brands of pet microchips, regardless of frequency or data format. The scanner is cloud-connected and ties into Peeva’s central registry where they are pairing millions of pet ID’s with medical records, thanks to their partnership with the NVA.

Co-Founder and CEO, Michael Hamilton, was inspired to launch his first startup after his childhood dog was stolen.

“We never got him back,” says Hamilton. “So when I got Peeva, my Puggle who I named the company after, I registered her microchip right away. But I was sad to learn that no truly universal scanner can read the range of microchips encountered by vets and shelters when they receive missing pets, so pets are seldom recovered.”

Of the beta program partnership with the NVA, Hamilton notes, “We are now pulling and pairing data for 150 veterinary hospitals. There are hundreds of startups and apps trying to penetrate into the electronic medical records (EMR) market in the vet space; we’re an alliance, not a potential competitor to those companies. They love us!”

Hamilton was born and raised in Buffalo, graduated from UB and took his career path to New York City. He moved back to Buffalo in 2010 and started Peeva last year. Peeva has five employees, is a client of LaunchNY, has been accepted into StartupNY programs, and currently works at the DIG co-working space in the Innovation Center.

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