Proving that ingenuity can be found in every corner of the Montclair State community amid even the most difficult circumstances, two non-business majors have won this year’s student portion of the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation’s annual Startup Montclair Pitch Competition this year held virtually.
Hassan Kashif and Zaki Tahir will be able to use their $25,000 cash prize and industry support valued at over $31,000 to realize their dreams for “Dr. Floss” – a one-time use, eco-friendly device that allows customers to floss all their teeth simultaneously.
In the student category, Kashif and Tahir are joined by Female Founders Prize winners Garbage Wine (Melissa Spigelman, Rashelle Jackson and James Reilly) for their idea to convert food waste to wine; 2nd place winners SoLo’s Food (Diamonique Lundy and Kheyyon Parker) for their healthy, affordable Soul and Latin food online ordering and delivery business, and 3rd place winners Cloud Card (Tiamera Rasmussen-Ellen and Megan Canzonieri) which aims to provide customizable business cards for easy electronic sharing.
Roncero Reiki, founded by Vicky Roncero, was selected as the Community Prize Winner of the 2020 Startup Montclair Pitch Competition for REIKIDS, an innovative program to bring the healing practices of Reiki to children, in a separate virtual contest held May 1.
“Congratulations to all the teams!” says Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation (FCE&I) Executive Director Carley Graham Garcia. “We’re really excited to watch these businesses continue to grow with our support.”
That support is substantial – provided by a diverse group of Pitch Competition supporters including Wix, AWS, IFundWomen, Gearhart Law and Trusona. This is the first year that student, alumni and community teams will receive support for their businesses beyond just prize money.
This is also the first year a Female Founders award was bestowed. “Given the Feliciano Center’s focus on women entrepreneurship, this prize was created to intentionally fund a traditionally under-funded group of founders – women,” says Garcia, who cites a 2019 report by Fortune indicating women receive only 2.7% of venture capital funding annually. Teams with more than 50% female leadership qualified for the Female Founders competition; two of Garbage Wine’s three founders are women.
Cash prizes of $25,000 were awarded to the first place and Female Founders winners, $10,000 to the second place winner, and $5,000 to third place. In-kind industry support – including website development, mentoring and dedicated co-working space at the Center’s new Lackawanna Place off-campus incubator – ensure that top winners will put their cash prizes to good use.
Montclair State has been holding pitch competitions with prize money since 2014, when an alumnus first offered $10,000 in prize money. Startup Montclair has aimed to identify the most innovative ideas at Montclair State and in the surrounding Montclair community, with a panel of judges awarding prizes to the most compelling concepts. Student teams must include at least one Montclair State student or alumnus. Community entrants must be based in Montclair, Clifton or Little Falls. This year, eight student/alumni teams and four community startups were selected as finalists.
Past awardees are still enjoying ongoing success. On May 1, the 2019 student winner Mavo Care – which is pioneering an all-natural feminine hygiene product – won second place at UPitchNJ, a statewide collegiate startup contest.
With the prize money and industry support in hand from this year’s contest, Team Dr. Floss is hoping to secure a patent and eventually become a global household name.
“This win is a great morale booster. We feel humbled as a team and are thankful for this opportunity,” says CEO Hassan Kashif, who immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan just six years ago. “I just want to work hard and make my family proud.”
Kashif is currently finishing his junior year majoring in Biology and is, no surprise, the current President of Pre-Dental Club. Tahir is a Mathematics major and a freshman.
“I came up with the idea after a disastrous visit to my dentist,” says Kashif. “Poor flossing had caused me a couple of new cavities.”
One morning while flossing, Kashif was inspired to create a product that could floss all teeth simultaneously. “There, the bulb was lit and Dr. Floss was born.”
The idea caught judge and entrepreneur Ricardo Taveras’ eye. “As an investor at this early stage, I was looking for a company with a somewhat unusual and convincing solution for a very large problem with a gigantic addressable market. Dr. Floss was it,” Taveras says. Besides having a “proof of concept or prototype,” Taveras notes that Kashif and Tahir also are “very confident, and genuine” – qualities that he says every startup team needs.
Judge Steven Rosenblatt, Co-Founder & General Partner – Oceans Ventures, also has high praise for the other student contestants: “It was great to see SoLo’s Foods tackle an underserved market. I really believe they can make an impact by bringing healthier choices as a replacement to fast and unhealthy meals. Garbage Wine has a big vision to tackle sustainability and the wasted food supply.”
“Overall, I believe this program is incredibly valuable to get capital in the hands of entrepreneurs who might not ordinarily have access to this money as a way to begin their entrepreneurial journey. I’m excited to see what’s to come in the future,” says Rosenblatt.
“The excellent quality of startups in Montclair was no surprise to me and it was electric to listen to their pitches!” says Karen Cahn, Founder & CEO of IFundWomen, who voted to award the top community prize to Roncero Reiki/REIKIDS.
“We are thrilled to have won this contest and feel so grateful that the Feliciano Center sees the amazing potential for helping many with Reiki, especially at this time!” says Roncero.
“I am currently creating classes which I call REIKI RIGHT NOW, with simple tools and techniques to help people with stress and anxiety. I hope to expand this offering and create content for my children’s program as well, which I call REIKIDS, a mindfulness program specifically created for kids. These and other projects are on the horizon and are now coming into being, with the Startup Montclair support.”
“As a firm believer in the healing power of Reiki, and knowing the high-anxiety time we are living in, especially for our kids, I am so thrilled that the winner was Roncero Reiki,” says Cahn. “Vicky [Roncero] and her team have both the domain expertise, and the grit to pull off Roncero Reiki’s new kid’s program, and the community really needs this healing right now. ”
Taveras also noted the particular challenges and opportunities entrepreneurs are facing right now.
“Difficult times such as what we are currently experiencing with the COVID-19 pandemic is ground zero for most entrepreneurs. Despite the difficulties, these are very exciting times for visionary entrepreneurs. They get to reimagine the future and create Earth 2.0.”
Story by Staff Writer Mary Barr Mann.