Searching for the Next Great Idea

Entrepreneurial students pitch business concepts in Top Ram competition.

From tech solutions to a cat playground to a condom delivery service, the pitches at the University’s annual Top Ram Idea and Business Model Competition hit all corners of the startup universe.

Heather Rose called it the most diverse lineup and one of the toughest calls in her time judging the event.

“Fundamentally, we have a student base that’s very entrepreneurial,” says Jefferson’s vice president of technology licensing and startups. “They’re thinking about ways to create companies that provide solutions to problems they’ve identified.”

Top Ram winners Audra Soltis and Delara Kiani talk to judge Heather Rose.
Top Ram winners Audra Soltis and Delara Kiani talk to judge Heather Rose about their concept.

The winning team of MS in industrial design students Delara Kiani and Audra Soltis presented a solution to improve menstrual product access and reduce the stigma of period care. The concept would create an educational pop-up shop for schools, provide period literature and product kits for students to discuss with their families, and develop teaching tools for bathrooms on period hygiene.

The pair received the $2,000 Matt Glass Award for Entrepreneurship—established by Dr. Steven Glass in memory of his late son Matt Glass ’15. In part, they will use the funding to develop a dispenser and help find brand partners.

Kiani and Soltis began developing the concept earlier this year and will continue working on it as their thesis project. They hope to launch their company by summer 2020.

Their depth of understanding the issue and where they could leverage their idea set this team apart, says Top Ram judge Andrew Dahlgren, a Philadelphia-based designer and maker.

“That made me confident in their ability to find a solution. They will be able to respond and find opportunities as they learn and grow,” he says, noting they found the sweet spot of successful entrepreneurship. “Their heads aren’t completely in the sky, and they’re not completely grounded. They found the space in-between.”

Our students care about the planet and want to make a difference in someone’s life.
—Ritu Jadwani

For this year’s Top Ram, eight teams of Jefferson students pitched their ideas to an expert panel. In addition to Rose and Dahlgren, other judges included Jefferson School of Business faculty members Jason Crook and D.K. Malhotra. A brief Q&A followed each five-minute presentation, and judging criteria included product/service innovation, research, potential impact, concept viability, business model innovation and storytelling.

Derek Sibinga and his group of fellow architecture students shared their concept of transforming coins into wearables like earrings, cufflinks and rings.

“We got a lot of really insightful feedback,” he says. “It’s helpful to put on different lenses when you’re looking at a business like this. You have to think about the macro and the micro.”

Brianna Giarraputo, a fashion merchandising and management major, found the judges’ input helpful as well. Her Box It recycling company would pay customers for their discarded cardboard boxes and resell them to retailers at a discounted price. Going to an Amazon distribution center for one of her classes inspired the idea.

“I saw all these cardboard boxes,” she says. “They all get shipped out, and they’re usually just thrown away. Why not figure out a way to reuse them?”

Student Rishika Dall pitches her idea.
User experience and interaction design student Rishika Dall pitched her idea to help students find parking.

Also having the environment in mind, MS in sustainable design student Hayden Remick pitched a regenerative landscaping concept as a solution to current techniques that require tremendous amounts of money, labor, fossil fuels, chemicals and clean water. Even though Remick didn’t win, he plans to use the judges’ feedback to refine his business model.

Competing in Top Ram often helps students push their concepts to the next level in development, says Ritu Jadwani, program manager for sustainability and retail initiatives at Jefferson’s Blackstone LaunchPad Entrepreneurship Center, which presented the event.

For example, industrial design alumna Julia Anthony M’19 earned first place in Top Ram two years ago for a multi-chamber reconstitution device for drugs that require resuspension and injection in emergencies. The SOLUtion Medical founder and CEO says she used the winnings to further her now patent-pending auto-injector through iterative early-stage prototyping.

“Solving real-life problems or social issues, which can create economic and lifestyle changes, often is a big trend in the presentations,” Jadwani says. “It shows that our students care about the planet and want to make a difference in someone’s life.”

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Business, Life at Jefferson