These 14 Startup Ideas Made The Cut For WashU Olin’s BIG IdeaBounce $50K Top Prize

career, ideas, startups, entrepreneurs

If the entrants to this year’s WashU Olin Business School’s BIG IdeaBounce® pitch competition are any indication, the next generation of entrepreneurs is an impressive bunch. The student founders who entered the contest are as innovative as they are ambitious to change a small part of the world for the better. The top ideas run the gamut from healthcare solutions to e-commerce analytical tools and from dating to mushroom-sourced supplements.

All told, 130 founders and founding teams entered our BIG IdeaBounce competition sponsored by Washington University’s Olin Business School, the winner of our 2022 and 2023 ranking of the best MBA programs for entrepreneurship. They hail from more than 60 universities and ten countries, including South Africa, India, Pakistan, Spain, England, the U.S. and Canada. WashU Olin’s BIG IdeaBounce® powered by Poets&Quants pitch contest was open to all current undergraduate and graduate school students or any prospect interested in a graduate business school degree.

Some 14 of those contenders have become finalists who are now competing for three slots to present in person on Washington University’s campus in St. Louis in March. The winner, to be chosen by a panel of judges, will receive $50,000 in funding from the Olin Business School. P&Q is also inviting our audience to vote for their favorite team and idea. You can watch their two-minute elevator pitches and read about their business plans in the following profiles.

‘THE BIG IDEABOUNCE FINALISTS: ‘THE OVERALL STORYTELLING HAS IMPROVED’

Doug Villhard of Washington University’s Olin Business School

“The pitches themselves are getting really tight and really sharp compared to three or four years ago,” says Doug Villhard, academic director for entrepreneurship at Washington University. “I think it’s because these entrepreneurship classes are spreading and getting more mature. The students are not just trying some thing out but are really committed to it. You see a higher energy around it and it appears that more of them are doing customer discovery and that makes the founder speak from the perspective of the customer and those are the folks that win. The overall storytelling has improved.”

Given today’s uncertainty about the economy, Villhard believes it’s an excellent time to launch a company. “Whenever the traditional financial markets get stressed, there are  amazing opportunities out there,” he adds. “What I am starting to see with the tech layoffs is a really interesting applicant pool for the MBA program. What they are saying is why not take two years, gather myself with new knowledge and work shop my idea. You can apply it to your actual startup. Google, Amazon and Facebook trained up people to think entrepreneurially. So it’s a great time. University networks are really generous to students. It is harder to do in real life.” 

The student pitches also reflect increasing sophistication. Acorn Genetics, out of Northwestern University, boasts a novel genetic sequencer that allows patients to test for genetic diseases in the privacy of their homes or at local clinics and to receive results within half an hour for a fraction of the current cost of such testing. EmployAI, from MBA students at the Wharton School, have thought up an intelligence platform for e-commerce platforms that empowers non-technical users to better understand their data by providing insights through boardroom-ready slides, an exploratory dashboard, and email notifications.

ONE BIG SURPRISE: THREE DATING APPS FROM STANFORD, WHARTON & WASHU MAKE THE 14 FINALISTS

Several were inspired by personal events. Aiding Arm was founded by two students at the University of Buffalo who recently lost many of their loved ones to health-related issues. “We used these tragedies to fuel a business venture that produces products to improve the quality of life for individuals who struggle to perform activities of daily living,”  says co-founder Brandon Davis. a 6th year PhD candidate in biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Rochester Medical Center.  “We work every day to develop products to help the loved ones of our customers in the way we wished they could have helped their loved ones.” The team created a clip-on shower chair attachment that allows frail individuals to control the flow of water while seated safely in a standard shower chair.

One big surprise: Three dating apps made the list of the 14 finalists from MBA students at Stanford, Wharton and Washington University’s Olin Business School. SetUp, founded by Stanford MBA students Sowa Imoisili and Matt Molloy using a platform to bring back friends setting up friends. As they see it, “There’s a gap in the market. Users are tired of dating apps not helping them build the type of quality connections that they’re looking to build. The dating apps of today are polarized with the majority imitating the random sheer quantity of potential people you can meet at the bar and a few mirroring more detailed matchmaking. There’s an unexplored middle of what has been a leading way for people to make connections through all of humankind – meeting through friends. Setup aims to fill this gap and focus on quality of connections over quantity.”

It’s clear this remains a big market. According to a Stanford University study, online dating has grown from making up just 2% of how heterosexual couples in the U.S. meet to over 40% over the past 30 years. “Online dating is now the leading way that people connect,” explain Imoisili and Molloy. “However, people looking for love are unsatisfied with existing dating apps. Users have sited frustration due to apps being impersonal/ superficial, time-consuming, dead-end conversations, catfishing/ fraud, too much choice, and more. As a proxy for the TAM, consider the number of people using dating apps worldwide as a proxy. According to a study conducted by Match Group, 323 million people world-wide use dating apps. Assuming a 10% market penetration, we assume the SAM to be at least 32.3M. The vast majority of matchmaking is also done on mobile devices. There is also willingness to try new apps. In 2021, over 250M people downloaded a new dating app. Beyond market size, consumers are also willing to spend significantly when it comes to finding love. A survey conducted by App Annie indicated that consumers spent over $4.1 billion on dating apps in 2021 along.”

ONE STANFORD MBA STARTUP MADE THE BIG IDEABOUNCE FINALS FOR THE SECOND TIME IN TWO YEARS

The number of dating apps that are being launched does not surprise Villhard. “Dating apps are blowing up,” he says. “Most of them got funded ten years ago and I think they have grown stale. We are still not falling in love as quick as we would like to and there appears to be more VC money flowing to it.”

Among the 14 finalists this year, one team made it to the finals a second time in a row: Pareto, an apparel company, out of Stanford Graduate School of Business. Jessica Landzberg and Olivia Bordson, co-founders and owners of Pareto, are self-described retail nerds who met nine years ago as students at Washington University. In high school, the worked on the floor as store managers. In college, they worked in-house for brands and retailers like Madewell, Band of Outsiders, and Target. After graduation, the pair spent a combined 7+ years at McKinsey serving 15+ retail brands across functional topics like merchandising, digital marketing, and pricing.

They have a direct-to-consumer, women’s apparel brand that makes the best version of the clothing women would actually wear, what they describe as a  farm-to-closet supply chain. Pareto was born from a frustration with the retail industry’s focus on more – more product, more often. And for what? But the pair have found that women are wearing 20% of their closets, 80% of the time, wasting time and money sifting through endless new product. Their goal: To make, curate and sell less apparel that would be worn.

Check out our profiles on the top 14 finalists and watch their elevator pitch videos by clicking on the links in the table below.

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