Venturing Boldly: NYU-Poly Students Compete in NYU Stern’s Entrepreneurs Challenge

Flush from their first-place victory in the Inno/Vention Competition last week at Polytechnic Institute of NYU, freshmen Kenny Mai and Joe Landolina are set to do it all over again on April 15, when they compete in the semifinals of the Entrepreneurs Challenge held annually by NYU's Stern School of Business Berkley Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation.

The event features three categories: the new venture competition, the social venture competition, and the technology venture competition, which makes its debut at the event this year. Registrants to the first two competitions must include at least one Stern representative or alumnus but are otherwise open to the NYU community at large. That requirement doesn’t apply in the technology venture competition, though, which is why a team like Anzenna, which features no Stern affiliates and is largely composed of NYU-Poly graduate students, can compete in the category and, indeed, advance to the semifinals.

Anzenna’s placement should come as no surprise to the NYU-Poly community. The start-up, which manufactures biosensors for the rapid diagnosis of diseases and is a member of NYU-Poly's BEST business incubator, was one of three companies included at the High-Tech Showcase organized by U.S. senator Kirsten Gillibrand in Washington, D.C., last August. Professor Kalle Levon of the Institute’s Department of Chemical and Biological Sciences helms the company, receiving assistance from a handful of the department’s graduate students and doctoral candidates.

Less Schooling, But Not Schooled

Composed of more members with more schooling and led by an established professor, Anzenna stands in stark contrast to Suneris Technologies, the company founded by Mai and Landolina, who are joined in their effort by Isaac Miller, a junior pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business from Stern. The difference between the two teams doesn’t faze Landolina. “What we lack are all the credentials of someone with a PhD,” he says. “We make up for that with the speed with which we’re able to react to change.”

Suneris, which is at work on Medi-gel, an organic, spray-on, gel bandage that the company hopes to have available in approximately two years, does appear to have a faster timeline than Anzenna, but Suneris is also notable for the relationship the two engineering students cultivated with a business student who, until the competition began eight months ago, neither had ever met. Asked why Miller was invited to the group, Mai explains, “We wanted to bring someone in with some experience in business, because god knows Joe and I didn’t know much to begin with.” Joking, he adds, “I don’t know that we know much now.”

Miller describes his involvement with the duo as refreshing. “The tech mindset is very different from the business mindset,” he says. “It really allows me to see things differently.”

A Kinetic Energy

For Jeffrey Carr, executive director of NYU Stern’s Berkley Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, that kind of cross-discipline education only enhances the competition. “It’s a wonderful partnering of opportunity here with people who have the business skills and the contacts with people who have the ideas but need to process them,” he says.

Carr expands the discussion, citing the value Poly brings to NYU overall. “From the world of entrepreneurship, it’s pretty clear that you can’t have a presence as an academic institution and really call yourself innovation- or entrepreneurship-oriented if you have a hole around engineering,” he says. “It just doesn’t work.”

Poly students are equally awed by the connections they’re able to make through the Institute’s affiliation with NYU. Says Hannah Kopelman, who graduated with a degree from NYU-Poly’s management of technology program in January, “I never thought I’d be able to go between different departments the way I have. NYU has something about it, some kind of kinetic energy.”

Kopelman is the lone NYU-Poly student whose team made it to the semifinals in the social venture competition. A member of Phoenix on Wheels, which sells bicycle-powered generators to underserved communities, Kopelman finds herself among a crew representing fields as diverse as nutrition, filmmaking, and, yes, engineering — but her engineering teammates are enrolled at the City University of New York. Marveling again at the diversity of her collaborators, Kopelman says, “That kind of fluidity is extraordinary.”

Daily Mantra: We’re Here to Help

Kopelman and her teammates, as well as Anzenna and Suneris, will get the chance to show their stuff tomorrow, when the semifinalists present to a panel of expert judges. Those who make it to the finals will again make presentations to a new set of judges on April 29-30, but for those who don’t advance, Carr offers reassurance. “Our expectation is that, even if they don’t get to the finals or don’t win, we’re still here to help through our mentor network and workshops. That really is our mantra,” he says.

Kopelman confirms. “The people who are running the competition at the Berkley Center — you can have direct access to them. You’re not submitting forms to a website where you never see the people running it,” she says.

Landolina and Mai praise the Berkley Center equally but also express faith in their project, win or lose. “Now that we’re on this path, we’re not even worried about the outcome of the competition,” Mai says. “Our main priority is watching our baby grow. No matter what, we want this business to come to fruition, to be successful.”