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Undeterred by Pandemic, Lehigh Student Entrepreneur Event Goes Digital

By Colin McEvoy on April 17, 2020

Unable to hold the event in person, Lehigh University’s Baker Institute held its annual Innovate! Celebrate! Awards Dinner online instead.

Each year, Lehigh University’s Baker Institute hosts an event that celebrates the success and contributions of the region’s entrepreneurial community, allowing student entrepreneurs to pitch their startups to a live audience and panel of judges and compete for prize money.

The annual Innovate! Celebrate! Awards Dinner was to be held on April 14, but the coronavirus pandemic made a live event impossible. But in keeping with the innovative spirit of Lehigh Valley’s entrepreneurial community, the Baker Institute found a way to make it happen.

In lieu of an in-person gathering, Innovate! Celebrate! was held April 14 on the video communications program Zoom, with the student entrepreneurs and panel of judges making their presentations online, while spectators watched from the comfort of their homes.

“The Baker Institute team is certainly committed to the students we serve and is uniquely positioned to be able to deliver virtual content for our programs due to the inherent nature of our organization,” said Baker Institute Executive Director Lisa Getzler. “We are constantly innovating and improving on how we provide students with transformative experiences and now our focus includes designing for immersive, interactive, robust programming in a virtual environment.”

Each student made a five-minute pitch video outlining why their project deserved the event’s $5,000 grand prize. The videos were first shared with the judges off-screen, then they were displayed for the viewing audience, after which the judges shared their decision.

An archived video of the event can be found here. The Baker Institute will also host the EUREKA! People’s Choice Pitch Competition online on April 23. Visit here for more details.

The top prize went to Ben Mesnik, who created an automated in-game coaching system for the video game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. YouTube is filled with videos with tips for the game, he said, but they are overlong, poorly edited, and inconvenient to view.

Mesnik’s system places a window directly on top of the screen of the game itself, allowing the player to view tips in real time as they play. Mesnik, a Lehigh senior majoring in computer science, also plans to expand the system to other video games.

“We found the most disruptive, biggest opportunity, in Ben’s project, in terms of market potential,” said David Bovenizer, founder and CEO of Lionheart Industrial Group, and one of the event’s judges. “He’s found a white space in a huge market (and) it’s a ready-to-launch platform.”

In a surprise announcement, the judges also awarded a bonus Enterprise Award of $2,500 to Justin Gelwicks, whose startup WoodGoods Lacrosse sells personalized wooden lacrosse shafts to both consumers and retailers.

Before transferring to Lehigh Gelwicks played college lacrosse until he was mugged, resulting in injuries that forced him to leave the team, it also led him to start designing customized sticks for his fellow teammates, and the response was so positive he began to pursue it as a business.

“We thought that he was very deserving of a prize because he exuded the entrepreneurship qualities that are definitely necessary, said judge Alita Friedman, founder and CEO of Alita’s Brand Bar.

“We always look for true entrepreneurs, someone who totally gets their hands dirty, has the passion behind their idea and then works tirelessly to put their idea in motion to bring it to an and Justin has done that,” Friedman said.

Other participating student entrepreneurs include Scott Gruninger and Austin Huffman, who make affordable exhaust systems with valves to allow driver control over the sounds of their car; and Nick Yarnall, who made a B2B crowd management solution for ski resorts that utilizes integrated artificial intelligence systems.

The four finalist teams were chosen from 36 teams that pitched throughout the academic year at the monthly EUREKA! Pitch Nights. The projects chosen as finalists had progressed the furthest, all pitching and winning at the third and final stage, where their ideas had been prototyped and had clear externally-validated rational, both technically and financially.

In addition to Bovenizer and Friedman, the third judge on the event’s panel was Paul Martino, founder of Bullpen Capital. All three judges are Lehigh University graduates.

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