Solar Flare “Swims” to Victory at Johnson’s Shark Tank Competition
2/8/2013 12:00:00 AM
Mikayla Diesch ’16, Carlos Wang, MBA ’13 (A), and Pallavi Nambiar, MBA ’14 (E), take first place with an energy bar loaded with DHA Omega-3 fatty acids.
Cornell students pitched their best business startup ideas to venture capitalists and competed for a prize of $500 in the Johnson Shark Tank competition, held at Duffield Hall on Feb. 5. The competition was sponsored by the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute and the Career Management Center at Johnson, College of Engineering Career Services, the Cornell Engineering and Technical Career Fair team, the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Entrepreneurship@Cornell, and Department of Computer and Information Science.
Twelve teams competed in the Shark Tank challenge, during which each team of students was given four minutes to present their idea to the audience and judges, and the judges were then given six minutes to ask each team questions and evaluate the team’s performance. The venture capitalists who served as Shark Tank’s judges were Yujin Chung ’04, MEng ’04, of Andreessen Horowitz; Eric Young ’78 of Canaan Venture Partners; Caitlin Strandberg ’10 of Flybridge Captial; Ben Lin of Great Oaks Venture; and Jenny Delaney, MBA ’13, fund manager for Johnson’s BR Venture Fund.
Pitching to an impressive turnout of Johnson MBAs as well as undergraduate students that filled Duffield Hall’s vast atrium, the Marshfillows team presented their idea first: a marshmallow pre-filled with chocolate to evoke the s’more-making experience. Other pitches included the FiberSpark team’s fiber optic Internet service, the Pick2Pay team’s app to help users choose the right credit card to maximize rewards for purchases, and the Party Headphone team’s wireless headphone system that allows users to sync with any audio source up to 100 yards away — something that has become a popular product in the Cornell community, thanks to the “silent parties” the company has thrown on campus.
After two hours of listening to back-to-back pitches followed by a deliberation period, the judges announced the winner: the Solar Flare team. Company co-founder Mikayla Diesch ’16, a student in the College of Engineering, first had the idea for her award-winning granola bar when she entered a competition to develop a recipe for a nutritious product for astronauts in space. Diesch created an all-natural, organic granola bar containing DHA Omega-3 fatty acids extracted from fish oil for improved brain function and health.
NASA approved Solar Flare’s bars and even provided Diesch with a photo of her bar in space with astronauts, which wowed the Shark Tank crowd and impressed judges.
“One of the biggest challenges was definitely finding a way to eliminate the fishy taste,” Diesch says, “but we developed a special process to take care of that. Now it doesn’t taste like fish at all, but you still get all of the benefits.”
Having generated and developed a great product, Diesch took it a step further and, with the help of fellow team members Carlos Wang, MBA ’13 (A) and Pallavi Nambiar, MBA ’14 (E), who are both Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute Fellows candidates, worked out a business plan, including how to scale up production to produce the bars commercially. The bars are set to debut in colleges and private schools across the country in 2013, and should be in full retail production by 2018.
“I’m unbelievably excited to win,” Diesch said, “this was a really great event and I’m so honored that the judges liked the product.”
The People’s Choice award — selected by the audience, who voted on scorecards distributed at the beginning of the event — went to the SUNN team, a company that produces LED light bulbs that adjust brightness based on the light outside. Their product has been shown to improve people’s circadian rhythms and sleeping habits in studies.
Team members Jeremy Blum, MEng ’13 (School of Electrical and Computer Engineering ), Kelton Minor, MS ’13 (Design and Environmental Analysis, College of Human Ecology), and John Ciecholewski, MBA ’13, who is also an Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute Fellows candidate, expressed their gratitude for the recognition: “We’re so happy the audience liked our product,” Blum said, “because we think it’s an awesome item and we have a lot of faith in it.”
— Maria Minsker ’13 is an intern in Marketing and Communications at Johnson