Young entrepreneurs compete, win in Sunstone Innovation Challenge

LONG BEACH, Calif–(CSULB IIE)–A mass-produced violin that would be affordable for elementary and middle school students.

A sports marketing agency and app to help mid-major and Division II athletes profit from new NIL (Name, Image and Likeness) legislation.

A polymer tape treatment to limit maintenance and extend life of wind turbine blades.

An app paired with education to help young adults understand investing and achieve financial literacy.

Those are the ideas that made it to the Cal State Long Beach finals of the Sunstone Innovation Challenge at CSULB. It is the latest evolution of the incubator started in the CSULB College of Business, which received a huge boost in 2017 with creation of the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (IIE) at Cal State Long Beach.

Long Beach’s pitch finals took place on April 14, with a three-judge panel making the tough decisions of who took home the $15,000 investment for first and $10,000 for second (the other two teams were given honorable mentions and $5,000).

“This is just the first step,” John Keisler, Sunstone Management’s president and CEO, said after the presentations. “This leads to the CSU Five plus One challenge (also called the Sunstone CSU Startup Launch Competition).

“And there’s more,” Keisler added. “Once they graduate, they can apply to become part of the Accelerator, too.”

The Long Beach Accelerator (LBA) is a partnership of IIE, the City of Long Beach, and Sunstone Management that provides in-depth  training and access to investors for startup businesses and entrepreneurs.

Dr. Wade Martin, CSULB professor of economics and director of the IIE, introduced the four finalists on Thursday afternoon. They had made it through two preliminary rounds that began with 22 teams.

All teams included Cal State Long Beach undergrad or graduate students, and they all had help from a mentor from either CSULB faculty or the Long Beach business community.

Each team had eight minutes to make their pitch to the three-judge panel, then answered questions from the judges. All had presented a written business plan to the judges in advance.

First up was The NIL Collective, a three-student team aiming to help college athletes and create a viable long-term business at the same time. The innovation came with an app to remind athletes to create content — blog posts, videos, etc. — and post to social media platforms to increase followers.

The collective would then help the athletes connect with potential advertisers and sponsors to monetize their work. A second phase of the business plan would allow the collective to become agent representatives of the more successful clients.

“We started this as a class project,” team lead Anthony Angeles said after the presentation. “But we can definitely make a career out of this. A lot of others do some of the work; we’re able to do it all.”

Scott Tomlinson, a team member who returned to college after a successful career, said this work has made him passionate again for what business can do.

“I feel invested again,” he said.

Lauren Fitzgerald is the third team member.

The NIL Collective ultimately came in as the first runner-up, earning $10,000. Chief judge Joe Platnick said the only minus in the presentation was lack of emphasis on women athletes, which was a focus of the original business plan.

Pavanas, a team of structural engineers, presented a plan to use a polymer-based tape to protect wind turbine blades from environmental damage and increase efficiency through decreasing drag. Team lead Komal Cada said that their product would save wind turbine farm owners millions of dollars in maintenance and replacement costs while increasing their revenue by producing more electricity.

“There are applications for (aircraft) wings as well,” Cada said. “But there are lots of regulations on aerospace industry applications. There are none on wind turbine blades.”

Pavanas would help the community by increasing the amount of renewable energy. Cada said the firm would make money when energy producers did — their royalties would be on increased energy production only.

But the judges said the product still was in the laboratory phase, and the customer base needed more development. Pavanas was named an honorable mention.

The last two teams are both sole proprietors. Proto-Lin Violins is Ryon Adams, a design student, and Unstockable is Elizabeth Masso, an MBA student.

Masso said she created her concept, Unstockable, after she lost the job she had after earning her bachelor’s degree. Her father had taught her about financial management, but in her discussions with friends, she found most young adults had little to no financial literacy.

“Hair stylists, for instance, are mostly sole proprietors,” she said. “They have no help with money management. I talked to one who said, ‘I’m in my 30s and I know I need to start doing something abut a 401K or something. But I know nothing about it.

“So I want to connect her with professional financial advisors, while helping educate her. I want to be a one-stop shop with education, information and connection.”

Masso noted that she is working fulltime and is a fulltime MBA candidate, so Unstockable is moving more slowly than she might like.

The judges agreed, saying that she had identified an important issue — financial literacy — and had the beginnings of a solution, but that it needed more development.

Unstockable was an honorable mention.

Proto-Lin Violins’ Ryon Adams said in addition to his scholastics, he had been a violin player for more than a decade as he was growing up. His experience exposed a problem he wants to solve — the high cost of even entry-level violins, creating a barrier to beginning players.

His solution — the VI Violin, made with injection molded polymer and put together with simple screws to limit repair costs. Adams had a prototype in hand, allowing him to play for the judges. His financials showed a startup production cost of around $60, allowing a violin to be sold for $85 — far less than the $500 or $600 traditional wooden violins cost.

Judges loved the product, and the business model. Vivian Shimoyama, well known in nonprofit and education circles, said Adams had identified a great need and found an elegant solution. Alan Pullman, founder of Studio One Eleven, said he appreciated the design and the fact the process could be upscaled to create different string orchestral instruments.

Adams took the first place prize.

“I started this as a senior class project,” Adams said. “It was only with the encouragement of my professor that I even entered this. Now I can see it as something that can move forward and make a difference.”

Adams and the rest of the CSULB teams will be in action again in just a couple of weeks in the final Sunstone CSU Startup Launch competition of the year. On May 6 at Cal State Long Beach, teams from  Cal State Northridge, Cal State Dominguez Hills, Cal State Los Angeles, Cal Poly Pomona and Cal State Fullerton will gather to put their best ideas forward.

Future successful businesses and social enterprises will be launched that day. See you there.


About Sunstone Management: A Financial Times (FT) Americas’ Fastest Growing Company
Sunstone Management, with the Sunstone Venture Capital Fund, is a diversified private capital firm located in Southern California that invests in diverse early-stage technology entrepreneurs who demonstrate the promise to build great companies. We believe in the aspirational power of southern California to attract and inspire the most sophisticated investors and the most ambitious entrepreneurs in the world. We deliver new and exciting opportunities for economic growth through the creation of innovative public-private-partnerships, and our unique experience across government, education, and private sectors.
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