A Valued Hand: How have TCU Values and Ventures winners fared?

Ethiopian teff grain

“Shark Tank with a heart” is what program director Matt Smilor calls Texas Christian University’s Values and Ventures Competition. TCU holds the two-day event on its campus each year, inviting undergraduate students from around the world to pitch their business idea to a panel of judges for prize money and services to help the business get started.

But perhaps the most work begins after the competition ends, when the winners must use their prize to turn their idea into an actual business. Months after 2015 competition last April, first place winner W.E. Do Good and second place winner Soletics are still around, making final tests on their products and hoping to launch in the next few months.

W.E. Do Good, which stands for World Entrepreneurs Do Good, hopes to sell a machine meant to more efficiently thresh the teff grain in Ethiopia. Soletics plans to sell a glove that helps alleviate the symptoms of Raynaud’s disease.

Smilor said both businesses capture what the competition is all about – having a viable business idea with a product that can help people.

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“It has to have a values component,” he said. “It can’t strictly just be an idea that makes money. It has to be able to better society or have a social aspect and values component to it, hence the name ‘Values and Ventures’ and not the other way around.”

Fort Worth Business caught up with both winners to see where the companies are headed next and whether the Values and Ventures Competition has made a difference.

First Place Winner: W.E. Do Good – $25,000

The idea for W.E. Do Good’s product came after company founder Gemechu Abraham took a trip to Ethiopia a little over three years ago. Abraham, who was born in Ethiopia but spent most of his life in the United States, wanted to get in touch with his Ethiopian roots, so he asked his grandmother to take him to the village where his family was from.

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There, he saw the farming practices used to thresh the teff grain, which is used to make injera, a type of flatbread and staple food in Ethiopia. The farmers would thresh the grain by walking cows, oxen or mules over the teff and having the animals trample on the grain.

“They actually had me do some of the farming,” Abraham said. “I said, ‘You know what, there’s something that’s got to be done about this.’ So that’s where it really started from. Taking that trip with my grandma really opened up to different possibilities. That’s been the backbone and the inspiration to all this.”

With the help of engineers from his alma mater, San Diego State University, as well as one of his former professors, Michael Sloan, Abraham and the team were able to develop a human-powered thresher that would help thresh the teff in a more effective and sanitary way.

Sloan, who also works as the university’s director of social entrepreneurship, was familiar with numerous entrepreneurial competitions in the United States, including the one at TCU. He said he felt Abraham’s business idea had potential to win the competition, so they entered the contest last April. Because the competition was for undergraduates only, San Diego State student Peter Morrill competed on behalf of Abraham and the company.

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W.E. Do Good took home the $25,000 first prize. Eight months later, the business is slated to launch in mid-2016. The final prototypes are being tested, and Abraham is meeting with manufacturers in Ethiopia to have the product made there.

The company has also teamed with San Diego-based nonprofit PCI (Project Concern International) to help distribute the product in Ethiopia. PCI runs initiatives to help women in impoverished areas. It plans to provide a subsidy that will help Ethiopian women buy the machine. The women will then be able to generate income by renting out the machine to farmers.

There’s still much work to be done in preparation for the business’ launch, Abraham said, but the Values and Ventures Competition has helped W.E. Do Good get to where it is today.

“It’s been a catapult for us,” he said. “Being able to leverage that and put it into production and going forward, it’s something that I wake up in the morning and I’m thrilled about every day.”

Second Place Winner: Soletics – $15,000

Stepping onto the TCU campus for the first time was nerve-wracking for Lindsay Noonan.

The then-undergraduate student at Grand Valley State University traveled from Allendale, Michigan, to Fort Worth for the Values and Ventures Competition. Because the competition was for undergraduates only, her business partners – master’s student Michael Kurley and 2014 graduate Vanessa Gore – couldn’t compete with her.

So Noonan had to compete alone.

“I was actually really scared,” she said. “I have really intense stage fright and for some reason I don’t like big crowds.”

But somehow she did well enough to impress the judges. Noonan said she was surprised to hear her company’s name, Soletics, called as the second-place winner of the competition. Soletics won $15,000 from TCU, along with an Innovation Award that included $25,000 in services from Fort Worth advertising agency Warren Douglas.

Soletics’ product is a glove meant to alleviate the symptoms of Raynaud’s disease. For a person with Raynaud’s disease, a sudden change in temperature can cause blood flow to be cut off from the fingers, causing them to lose feeling. Soletics’ glove senses temperature changes and applies heat to the fingers automatically, keeping blood flowing and avoiding a Raynaud’s attack.

Soletics used the $15,000 prize to help develop the product and create a prototype, Noonan said.

Now the business is preparing for a 2016 launch. Noonan has taken the role as chief marketing officer, Gore as chief communications officer and Kurley as CEO. The team has raised over $500,000, secured four investors and has 370 preorders. Soletics also has a patent for the glove on file.

Kurley said the competition not only helped the company move forward but also raise awareness for Raynaud’s disease.

“The Values and Ventures Competition has given people like us a voice to show that there are lot of issues out in the world, and there are a lot of people trying to solve those issues,” he said.

The Past Five Years

TCU’s Values and Ventures Competition celebrated its fifth year in 2015. Of the 132 teams that competed over the past five years, 61 have either launched companies or are in the process of doing so, according to program director Matt Smilor.

Here’s a look at the past first-prize winners and where they are now:

• 2011 – Spring Back Recycling, Belmont University. Spring Back Recycling, a mattress recycling company, now operates as a nonprofit organization.

• 2012 – UNlimiters, University of Houston. UNlimiters was an online retailer that sold services and products such as magnetized shirts and no-touch hand soap dispensers for people with disabilities. The company is no longer in operation.

• 2013 – Crowdvance, George Washington University. Crowdvance helps nonprofits raise money online and, in return, donors can receive prizes in the form of gift cards or coupons to companies such as MovieTickets.com. Officials did not respond to our enquiry.

• 2014 – BioBotic Solutions, University of Arkansas. BioBotic Solutions, whose product is a device that limits contamination and errors in pathology labs, is fundraising and prototyping. The company plans to begin selling the product in 2017.

The next competition will take place April 8-9. Students interested in competing can apply at http://www.neeley.tcu.edu/Form.aspx?ekfrm=19938.