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KCAD Design Students Get Down to Business, Win Big in Regional Entrepreneurship Competition

Posted May 7, 2015 in StudentIndustrial Design

In a student business plan competition filled with business and economics majors, few people expected design students to come out on top. But that’s exactly what happened in the recent 2015 MWest Challenge, where three student teams from Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) won three of a possible ten awards and took home a whopping $11,000 in startup capital prize money.

A total of 42 teams participated in this year’s competition, which gave students from KCAD and eight other regional colleges and universities the opportunity to collaboratively develop a business model and plan for a new entrepreneurial venture – including a product, a for-profit service, or a non-profit service – and pitch their ideas to area business professionals and major players in West Michigan’s venture capital and startup accelerator arenas, with $20,000 in total cash prizes on the line.

scene from the 2015 MWest Challenge

MWest’s big winner, taking home the $6,500 Grand Prize, was a team consisting of KCAD Industrial Design students Amanda Hargraves, Ben Zuiderveen, Fernando Ramirez, and Kayla Ita, and Grand Valley State University student Mackenzie Macksey. Their winning product, RE | fresh, is an innovative twist on a food storage container that’s both compostable and specially designed to keep different foods separate and sealed.

team RE Fresh presenting at MWest 2015Members of the RE | fresh team presenting at the 2015 MWest Challenge

The idea for RE | fresh was first born in another local entrepreneurial competition – Startup Weekend – and the challenge this time around was to fine tune the business model to meet the much more rigorous expectations of MWest judges.

“It was just more about just going through and exploding all of the areas we started to explore at Startup Weekend,” said Ita. “There, things happen quicker, and your idea doesn’t have to be as refined, but Mwest is the opposite; you’re expected to come to the stage with all of the tough questions already answered. You have to have solid numbers and an actual plan that can be executed.”

The RE | fresh team did just that, impressing judges with a well-designed product, proven customer validation, and a solid business plan that reduced cost and maximized profitability. The team even secured a partnership with West Michigan-based BBC Distributing that would enable them to streamline distribution and leverage the company’s existing customer base. The judges weren’t the only ones who were impressed.

team RE Fresh presenting at MWestThe RE | fresh team captured the judges' attention with innovative design and a strong business model

“We were approached by several people over the course of the day: people who had distributing connections, people who are interested in investing or loaning us money, and even people who are just interested in mentoring us and seeing our idea come to fruition,” said Ramirez. “I think that speaks to the strength of our presentation and how well everyone on our team knows the product and the business model.”

Another team featuring KCAD Industrial Design students Allison Charnley, Christina Cardenas, Karl Hoenshall, Mackenzie Smith, and Pat Shields and GVSU students John Cook and Kevin Murphey won the $2,500 Runner-Up Grand Prize with FitFrames, a company devoted to helping people find the perfect pair of eyeglasses.

team FitFrames presenting at MWest 2015The FitFrames team presenting to the MWest judges

Using a 3D scanning kiosk that could be installed at any eyewear retailer, FitFrames would match a customer’s physical form to a database of available frames, giving them a realistic idea of how the frames would look without having to actually try them on. The team validated their idea by conducting on-site research at area eyeglass retailers, and developed a savvy business model that saved stores money by reducing the amount of on-site physical inventory they would need to carry. The team’s business model also created a healthy flow of revenue through installation and services fees and a percentage of each pair of frames sold.

MWest’s $2,000 Lifestyle Prize went to the team of Hayley Tanner, an exchange student from Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom who’s currently studying at KCAD, and Grand Valley State University student Alaina Clark. The pair created The Entreprenartist Movement, a non-profit service that aims to teach artists and designers advanced business and entrepreneurial skills in a way they can understand and relate to.

Tanner and Clark have already obtained grant funding from the Avenue for the Arts that will allow them to conduct three pilot courses before eventually developing a textbook that would implement the course around the world.

Of the 42 teams that participated in the 2015 MWest Challenge, nine featured KCAD students, and for those who found themselves in the winners’ circle, the accomplishment says just as much about KCAD as it does about them.

“I think KCAD teams winning first and second says a lot about the school, and I was more excited about that than our actual win,” said Ramirez. “Here, we’re taught the design process, and the design process demands that we be creative. Every problem we approach, we solve creatively, and I think that’s what differentiated us in the end.”