Nine finalist startups pitched their business plans to a panel of judges in the heart of Gainesville’s innovation district at the first Startup Challenge on Feb. 20.
Each team had four minutes on the floor to sell its idea to a panel of judges that included experienced entrepreneurs from the Brennan, Manna and Diamond Law Firm, Signet and Elite Parking Services of America. The teams competed for the opportunity to win the first-place prize of $10,000. GuestBox, founded by Shuchi Vyas, won first-place. GuestBox is a subscription box service that helps vacation rental and Airbnb hosts as well as hotels welcome their guests with warmth and hospitality. Filled with luxury essentials like toiletries and skin care items as well as high-end extras, each box is intended to enhance the guest experience by adding a personal connection between guest and host.
Born from her experience as an Airbnb host and frequent traveler, Vyas wanted to create a unique welcome that reincorporates human connections into the digitalized industry, she said.
“I come from a culture of hospitality — my roots are Indian, and in India, hospitality is very high quality,” she said. “There is a saying in Sanskrit, ‘Atithi Devo Bhava,’ which means, ‘A guest is like a god.’ So, the way you treat a guest is the same way you would treat a god if they came into your home. And as I think more about this industry and how we can provide a high-quality experience, GuestBox is a great solution for both.”
The Startup Challenge prize money will help Vyas grow GuestBox, by allowing her to expand further into the market.
“We were looking for a company that really has an idea that we believe can really make it to market — something that’s cutting edge and is unique,” Apolito said. “We saw how GuestBox can fit into hotel and Airbnb-type markets and sell its product.”
In partnership with the Startup Challenge, Signet and BMD plan to provide business expertise and legal counsel to help the startups get started on the right foot.
Anthony Manna, Signet founder, principal and chairman, opened the event with words of advice from his own entrepreneurial success: “It’s not enough to work for it. It’s not enough to be smart. You have to have a plan that someone’s going to buy into.”
Signet, a global private investment firm that began as a startup, now invests in over 25 companies, 12 of which were also startups.
“It’s really important to identify that talent in up-and-coming companies in the beginning before other companies do, so that we can really try to help them,” said Alessandro A. Apolito, a partner at BMD who sat on the panel.
BehaviorMe, a company developing immersive virtual reality simulations for behavioral specialists to use as a tool to expand skill sets of individuals with autism spectrum disorder, took second place winning $2,500. Outsider Technologies LLC came in third, winning $1,000.
The Startup Challenge organizers developed the competition to bring the local entrepreneurial community together.
“We really wanted everyone to have that creative and authentic experience,” said Stephen Zaremba, a student at UF and co-organizer of the event. “Hopefully, we’ll have a great turnout next year with more conversations and more fantastic entrepreneurial networking.
Samantha Belluccia is a public relations major at the University of Florida. Passionate about nature, plants and animals, she loves to spend time outside. A few of her favorite things include beachside sunsets, butterflies and a big bowl of apple cinnamon oatmeal.