"Shark Tank" style pitch competition concludes the Entrepreneurship Program pilot
The 18 members of the Thayer Entrepreneurship Pilot Program didn’t just step up to the plate; they built the ballpark.
“Your legacy is intact,” Upper School Computer Science and Math Department Head Kevin Cedrone P ‘22, ‘27 told the students, all members of the Class of 2023, at a May 22 pitch competition which served as the course’s culminating event. “You started this program.”
Led by Cedrone, Thayer launched the eight-week pilot this winter to expose students to the building blocks of entrepreneurship, from product opportunity identification and ideation to prototyping, competition analysis, team building, and business model fundamentals. As part of the program, supported by faculty from both Babson College and Bentley University, the students met Monday nights during the spring semester; they did so for zero academic credit.
“I promised them engagement,” said Cedrone, who thanked the students for co-creating the program with him. “This was pure interest from second-semester seniors, and that’s pretty special.”
Cedrone also thanked the entire Thayer community — from the administration to trustees to parents and guardians — for supporting such an ambitious effort.
The program’s final event, the pitch competition, was held in Glover 205. In addition to Cedrone and the student entrepreneurs, in attendance were Head of School Chris Fortunato P ‘26, ‘28 and Steven Brand, a global entrepreneur strategist and a visiting assistant professor of practice in entrepreneurship at Babson College. Brand consulted with Cedrone and students throughout the pilot.
The pitch competition saw four groups of students make five-minute pitches to a panel of outside judges followed by 10-minute question-and-answer sessions with those same judges. The five volunteer judges included: Jen Ognibene P ‘23, ‘26; Paul Ognibene P ‘23, ‘26; Joe Farmer P ‘23, a current trustee; Jen Havilicek P ‘18, ‘21, ‘21, a current trustee; and Michael Joe P ‘17, ‘20, the board’s current chair. While there were no sharks in these waters, the judges asked probing questions on topics such as product cost, scalability, market share, branding, target consumers, and regulatory hurdles. They offered constructive criticism and suggested next steps for the four groups.
Group 1 — Andrew Guilfoyle, Alena Mulhern, Austin Ngo, and Maddie Stearns — pitched RE-MULCH, a product which would use the harvesting byproducts of cranberry farms to create an organic, arsenic-free, and sustainable alternative to traditional fertilizer. Judges lauded the team’s presentation and also the idea itself, which came from Stearns, who lives on her family’s cranberry farm in Carver.
Group 2 — Kylie Bogar, Charlie Cao, Peter Chen, Daniel Cherry, and Amanda Fogel — pitched GLESS, a spring-loaded glass-breaking device which can be installed in any car at the point where the window rolls down into the doorframe. The product would allow prompt, safe exit during an accident when a car is submerged in water.
“You’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it,” explained Bogar when asked about the frequency of such accidents. The team presented its plan to market to consumers, especially worried parents of new drivers.
Group 3 — Tommy Bi, Caroline Driscoll, Will Kourafas, and Conor Mannion — pitched FLOBAG, a water-resistant bag that is both floatable and GPS-trackable. The product would be marketed to the water sports industry as “a mental insurance policy” for those who want to canoe, kayak, or boat but want to bring along their medicines, phones, cameras, and the like. Kourafas, a sailor himself, called the product a real improvement to traditional dry bags, and team members noted that the FLOBAG would be made in bright colors to make it even easier to spot.
Group 4 — Max Hughes, Jackson Reardon, Owen Sharpe, Addi St. Jean, and Katie Wipf — pitched BLUBS, which stands for “Blinking Light-Up Braking System.” The device allows car brakes to blink; more importantly, it allows them to blink faster or slower depending upon the speed with which the driver applies the brakes. The product is intended to address the 1.7 million rear-end collisions in the United States alone, presenters said.
The BLUBS team noted that the device would cost roughly $40 and be attachable, meaning that it could be used for new cars or used cars, expensive cars or cheap cars. The team also showed a video of the device in action courtesy of Hughes’ own car, on which he’d installed a working prototype. St. Jean told judges that the plan would be to market to consumers but eventually partner with the insurance industry.
As a surprise to the seniors and via the newly created Thayer Entrepreneurship Fund, the night included several prizes to recognize student ideas and their efforts to bring them to fruition. Group 3, aka the FLOBAG team, earned the team prize of $2,500. The funds can be distributed to anyone who wants to keep working on the project, either with Professor Brand or through a similar program in college.
Two students, Mulhern and Sharpe, based upon their strong engagement with the pilot, earned individual prizes each worth $2,500. The students can use the funds to take an entrepreneurial course or to use as seed money if they join an entrepreneurial venture group in college.
Lastly, each of the 18 seniors received a $100 Amazon gift card as a token of the Academy’s appreciation for their work in bringing to life Thayer’s nascent entrepreneurship program.
While he was an engaged audience member during the pitch competition, Fortunato also joined several students this past January at the inaugural Bentley Entrepreneurship Panel event at Bentley University. There, he expressed his appreciation for the pilot program and Cedrone’s efforts to build one.
“Thayer will continue to take important and bold steps to amplify student engagement by connecting students to people, institutions, ideas, and opportunities that inspire and excite them to lean into their curiosities and passions,” Fortunato said that night. “The enthusiasm around Thayer entering into the entrepreneurship space is palpable, and I’m grateful for Kevin Cedrone’s leadership as we incubate new ideas and programs like this one.”
Building upon this spring’s pilot program, Thayer will offer a full-year entrepreneurship course for the 2023-24 school year. Beyond business model fundamentals and prototyping, the course will foster communication skills, relationship building, and perseverance. The course continues to be developed in partnership with scholars from MIT, Babson, and Bentley; it will be open to juniors and seniors.
Cedrone said his department was hoping to have 16 students sign up for next year’s course; instead, the department saw 59 student sign-ups.
“There seems to be a great deal of interest,” he said.
The goal of the course, said Cedrone, is to ensure that Thayer students know enough to be entrepreneurial leaders when they enter college.
“We’re walking them toward the next step to be impactful in college and beyond,” the veteran teacher said. “We want them to be ready from Day One.”