Skidmore ‘Shark Tank’ contest helps launch business dreams

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Nine finalists, from a large field of entrants who started out last September, vied for the $20,000 first prize in a “Shark Tank”-style business competition at Skidmore College on Friday.

Contestants pitched ideas ranging from a natural skin care line to a phone app that gives guided horseback riding lessons.

Kenneth A. Freirich, who launched his own company while attending Skidmore, founded the Business Plan Competition eight years ago to foster entrepreneurship across all majors and disciplines at the school. The contest is not limited to business students and is done separate from normal coursework, with no academic credit.

“It’s about bringing a business to life,” he said. “Some of them are already selling products. Others are still designing and planning them.”

“What surprises me every year is the diversity of businesses,” he said. “In the early days there was a lot more technology. Now we a have craft brewing company, empanadas, an agribusiness in Madagascar and polo equipment. They’re only limited by their creativity. That’s the thing that’s really cool every year.”

Art major Izaak Cohen, communicating by Skype from Madrid where he’s studying abroad, has started a firm called Z’s, which sells luxury-style rolling paper for the booming legalized cannabis market that is growing 30-40 percent annually. The product comes in distinctly designed boxes of 50 papers each “for the sophisticated smoker,” he said.

Cohen has met with numerous high-end dispensaries and cannabis accessory shops including some in Los Angeles, which he’s traveled to.

“There has not been anything remotely like it to hit the market yet,” he said.

But he’s had trouble maintaining inventory as demand outpaces supply.

Judges questioned how he plans to handle competition if other firms start offering similar products, if he’s developed a long-term inventory strategy, and how fast he expects the market to keep growing.

Cohen said it’s critical to get his brand established, possibly with help from a celebrity-type spokesperson, to gain product recognition and solidify market share. He said he would use prize money to achieve such goals.

International student Oliver Leung, of Hong Kong, has formed a company called Radical Polo, with plans of making an all-in-one polo equipment bag designed to store, organize and protect players’ belongings. At present, expensive bags are sold for each different item such as helmet and boots.

“Polo is a fast-paced exciting game,” Leung said. “What you might not realize is the amazing amount of equipment needed to play.”

He believes there is demand for his product because the sport has grown by 43 percent in the U.S. and 47 percent in the United Kingdom in the past nine and five years, respectively. At present, there are 24,000 registered players around the world, and 70 percent of those he surveyed said there’s a need for an all-in-one bag to protect their expensive equipment.

Polo players have an average $500,000 household income, which should make the standard $350 price tag quite affordable, he said.

Leung is working on a relationship with the prestigious Aspen Polo Team to gain exposure and product credibility.
He has developed a promotional campaign to create awareness, hopes to start taking orders in June, followed by manufacturing and distribution in September.

Student spectator Will Stricker said, “It’s a really cool experience to have something like this on campus. There’s a lot of entrepreneurial spirit at this school.”

Two college friends of his, Ely Milstein and Ward Mahoney, have started a real estate venture aimed at helping local people find affordable housing.

Freirich is now the chief executive officer of Health Monitor Network. He and other Skidmore alumni put up the contest prize money, which includes $10,000 and $5,000 for second and third place, respectively. The top three contestants also get an additional $5,000 for legal expenses to help with business start-up costs.

Each of the nine finalists is guaranteed $1,000.

“So there’s a lot at stake,” Freirich said. “But they’re all winners whether they win the big prizes or not. I’m going to encourage all of them, regardless of where they finish in the competition, to continue pursuing their dreams and businesses.

“This is the next chapter of their journeys . It has the ability to change their lives forever.”


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