Start Me Up

Start Me Up

Three UC students are turning a bright idea into startup success

For an evening back in December 2016, Utica College’s Carbone Auditorium looked more like an episode of NBC’s Shark Tank than a college classroom.
 
As part of Brett Orzechowski’s Entrepreneurial Media class, three student teams presented their own media-based products and services before a panel of judges. Local media professionals and a virtual audience (via live stream) served as “sharks,” evaluating the pitches as potential investors—and determining students' final grades.
 
The winner: SucSeed, a niche-market nutrition app that provides meal plans tailored to those with specific dietary issues. Despite being the final project in Orzechowski’s course, the December presentation was just the beginning for Team SucSeed; students Emily Coope ’17, Becky Vennero ’18, and Adam Westbrook ’20.

The first iteration of SucSeed was the brainchild of public relations major Vennero.
 
“I had used My Fitness Pal for years,” says Vennero, referring to the popular smartphone food journaling app. But unlike most users, Vennero used the app to plan her meals and snacks in advance, rather than recording her choices after the fact. Despite being time-consuming, creating the meal plans made eating healthy easier, she says, and helped streamline her busy weekdays.
 
“I thought, ‘Why isn’t there any app that does this for me?’” she says. Vennero wrote up a quick pitch and brought the idea to Orzechowski's class in early September. 
 
The potential in the meal-planning app (the name SucSeed would come later) attracted classmate Coope, a business management major, UC hockey player, and CrossFit trainer with a background in nutrition. The duo soon recruited computer science major Westbrook, who was key in developing the technical side of the app.
 
“We all brought different skills to the table,” says Coope. “We knew that building the right team would be crucial to how the rest of the semester went.”
 
Indeed, allowing students to form their own teams was an important part of the learning process, according to Orzechowski. Students spent the first class periods pitching their ideas and skills to one another, which "can be intimidating,” he says. “The first couple weeks of the course are like an awkward high-school dance.”

“The first couple weeks of the course are like an awkward high-school dance.” 

Though Entrepreneurial Media was first offered at UC in fall 2016, Orzechowski spent several years co-teaching a similar course at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. The curriculum is fast-paced, and forces students to “solve real problems, rather than deal with hypotheticals from a textbook,” says Orzechowski. Throughout the course, which is open to all majors, students learn the basics of startup culture, digital marketing, and entrepreneurship funding—all with the high-stakes presentation looming at the end.
 
“Students quickly learn that they’re operating without a net,” he says. “But that’s exactly what being part of a startup is like."

 “Students quickly learn that they’re operating without a net."

In addition to receiving A’s in the course, shortly after the final presentation, Team SucSeed was approached by a local businessperson with a surprising proposition: a purchase offer.
 
“This person saw real value in their idea and made a cash offer,” says Orzechowski. “I think their mouths kind of dropped at first, but then they looked at it from an intelligent, financial perspective.”
 
After weighing their options, the team turned it down.  
 
“We saw more value and potential in SucSeed than what this person was offering,” says Vennero. “We felt like we could do more with the idea if we continued to pursue it ourselves.”

And so they have.
 
On April 1, the team competed in the Mohawk Valley Collegiate Business Plan Competition, where SucSeed earned second place in the IT/software category and qualified for state competition in Albany on April 28.
 
While they didn’t place in states, the team received positive feedback from the judges and their peers, which inspired them to push on. They’ve been working to refine SucSeed with Ryan Miller, director of thINCubator in downtown Utica, which helps aspiring entrepreneurs take their ideas to market. 
 
“Working with thINCubator has been huge for us,” says Coope. “Ryan has connected us with a web developer and given us tons of feedback. It’s cool that we’re taken seriously and given the opportunity to see where this can go.”
 
Agrees Vennero: “We went into this not knowing much about startups or how entrepreneurship works,” she says. “Now we’re going to business meetings a few times a week and making decisions about real money. It’s been a transformation.”
 

For more on SucSeed, look for a story in the Fall 2017 edition of Utica, the Utica College magazine.
 

Becky Vennero '18
Becky Vennero '18

 
 
Adam Westbrook '20
Adam Westbrook '20

 
 
Emily Coope '17
Emily Coope '17

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