App to Help Students Study Takes First Prize in College Shark Tank Competition

WiGo CEO and former Holy Cross student Ben Kaplan among judging panel

On Thursday, March 26, the College of the Holy Cross hosted its third annual “Shark Tank” competition, based on the popular television show. Participating students created a product or service and pitched the idea to a panel of expert judges. The exercise gave students an opportunity to sell and defend their business plan to real life business leaders. The event was sponsored by the Ciocca Office of Entrepreneurial Studies and Prebusiness Program and made possible through the financial support of Michael Barrett ’84.

In April 2013, the Ciocca Office of Entrepreneurial Studies and the Entrepreneurship Club co-sponsored the first “Shark Tank” competition. Just two years later, the Shark Tank competition has grown immensely, with a large increase in both participation and prize money.

“Our first year we had five teams and the prize money was $100. The second year we had eight teams with prize money of $1000. This year, we have a total of six “idea” teams and 15 “serious start-ups” teams. With 21 teams and $12,000 in prize money, we’ve really grown a lot in two years,” says David Chu, director of the Ciocca Office of Entrepreneurial Studies and the Prebusiness Program.

The Shark Tank competition’s growth is, in part, due to the success of former participant and winner Ben Kaplan, a former Holy Cross student, who served as one of the judges for this year’s competition. Kaplan created and designed the mobile application WiGo and has since seen the application grow to a total valuation of $14 million, according to the Boston Business Journal.

“I had the idea for the app, and I put together four slides and presented two years ago at the first Shark Tank competition and won $100. Afterwards, one of the judges approached me and said this is a really good idea and said that I should take the next steps. It inspired me to start drawing mock screens of the app. Once I made them digital and pitched to different programmers, it only took eight months to launch the app at Holy Cross,” says Kaplan.

Unlike years past, this year the competition was separated into two categories: idea teams and serious start-up teams. The idea teams were allowed two-minute pitches, while the serious start-up teams were allotted a five-minute pitch with a PowerPoint presentation and a question and answer section.

One of the winning idea teams was the mobile application “Gavel.” Created by political science major Michael Carboni ’18, Gavel would summarize current legislative bills that are on the floor for voting. It would show key points with a highlighted 1-2 page nonpartisan summary. The language of the response would be written at an early high school reading level so teachers can implement this resource into the classroom and all people can understand.

Carboni says, “I got the idea from my internship working on a political campaign for New York City assemblymen this summer. This gave me the idea that all constituents could have a summarized bill and it would make a more educated America for voting.” The other winning idea was the mobile application “Tap and Teach,” an app that would connect students to qualified tutors at their school.

“There is a huge benefit from utilizing students from within the school as tutors, instead of outsourcing, because they have taken the classes before and know the academic rigor and tips that can help their fellow students succeed. The application will make the tutoring system a lot more accessible and flexible for students,” says app creator Alex Yao ’15. The two winning idea teams each won prize money of $250.

The runner-up for the “serious start-ups” was awarded to “SRKA,” (pronounced ser-ka), a newsfeed platform that enables recipients of blast emails to manage their responses to these emails. Creators and designers Michael Casey ’15 and Andrew Valencia ’15, came up with their idea after being sick of receiving countless emails. They impressed the judges by showing them a mock application.

“While Andrew created the mock app using InDesign, we are looking to move forward with creating the app by hiring a developer for the more technical side,” says Casey. They received $4,000 towards their project.

The overall winners of this year’s Shark Tank competition were the creators of “Studily,” a productivity suite that allows students to plan their coursework, track their progress, and collaborate with classmates. The creators, computer science major and economics double major John Tabone ’15 and English and Spanish double major Sean Donoghue ’15, have participated in past Shark Tank competitions, but said they were able to take what they learned from the competition and apply it to create a better idea and product.

“The judges mentioned they liked that we knew the technology behind the project, and that’s something we didn’t know two years ago. There are so many professors in the computer science department that work so hard and really helped me learn the technical language, along with an internship I held this past summer in the tech industry. I went in knowing one program language, but came out knowing a ton more and more about education start-ups,” says Tabone.

In terms of their pitch, fellow creator Donoghue says, “It was all about charisma and being able to develop a presentation and practice it, but not be married to it. It took a lot of practice. John and I went over and over it. We did the Deep Dive workshop during winter break, and I think that really helped.”

The Entrepreneurship Deep Dive, a new workshop held by the Entrepreneurial Studies Office, provides students the opportunity to prepare their idea for the annual Shark Tank Competition, as well as learn from and network with alumni who are successful entrepreneurs themselves.

What’s the next step for the winners? “Now that we have $7,500 we think we can get our MVP, minimum viable product, out there and hopefully we’ll beta test at Holy Cross next fall. We would like to gain some investments to get a little bit of funding and we’ll see where it goes,” says Donoghue.

With such success in two years, Chu sees the Shark Tank competition expanding next fall with more workshops for students.

Chu also explains the importance of having a liberal arts background when entering the business field: “A liberal arts education is a great foundation for success in the business field in terms of communicating value, proposition, articulation and understanding the customer psychology, culture, religion; that’s what liberal arts really is.”

“This program helps students develop technical literacy so that they can tell the employer they had put together a business plan, pitched it in front of judges, and can show the slide deck of the presentation despite whether they won or not,” says Chu.

The panel of judges included Bob Allard ’91, co-founder and managing partner of extensionEngine (eE), John Calcio, vice president of Channel Development at QStream, Tom Flynn ’87, managing partner of SV Life Sciences, Ben Kaplan, former Holy Cross student, and co-Founder & CEO of WiGO, Davide Marini, co-founder and CEO of Firefly BioWorks, and Mary Moran ’77, financial services consultant and contractor.