Michael Elices ’13 is on the cusp of something big in the wildly popular realm of sci-fi, historical and fantasy board games – making personalized figurines that look just like the gamers. As this year’s winners in Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation’s annual Startup Montclair Pitch Competition, Elices and his business partner and spouse, Raisa Da Silva, now have much needed capital to make their next move.
It hasn’t come easy for the couple. They’ve developed an iPhone app that allows them to create 3D printing miniatures from selfies with such subtle facial details that the figures look, as their business name implies, like a Miniature You. But before making their pitch and judges awarding $17,000, their workshop flooded (twice), caught fire (once), and their bank account drained (to just a few cents) with their patent coming through for public disclosure on the same day as the pitch competition.
Startup Montclair was held virtually on May 12 to identify the most innovative ideas among students and alumni. The University provides resources, from networking opportunities with past winners, to professors’ expertise and access to industry support to help students turn their passions into proﬁts. A panel of judges awarded prizes to the most compelling concepts, with each of this year’s three winners sharing an entrepreneurial spirit for empathy and empowerment.
Flourish by Sage
Sienna Grant Mitsak, a sophomore Visual Arts major, was winner of an $8,000 prize for her natural hair care line and brand, Flourish by Sage, which aims to “help people embrace their natural selves and love their identity.”
As a biracial woman, Mitsak says she’s experienced confusion dealing with her hair. “My parents could never really figure out how to tend to my hair, so at a young age, I had to learn how. I went through many trials going through drugstore hair products, and I feel like I’ve been through at least maybe 50 different kinds.”
Eventually she decided to do the research and formulate her own.
She’s been busy in the kitchen, where she mixes sustainable ingredients to help bring light to textured hair. “I’ve become a chemist with this stuff,” she says. The products are sold on her website and Etsy, and she looks forward to vendor events when they are able to resume.
“A big focus for this brand is that I want women and men to feel empowered about who they are naturally, because I believe for too long society has tried to make people feel as though they shouldn’t feel comfortable being their natural self. This is a prevalent time for people, in regards to really waking up and embracing their natural state.”
Charlie’s Home Youth Transition Program
Judi McGuinness ’21 won the $5,000 Social Impact Prize for her nonprofit Charlie’s Home Youth Transition Program, LLC. Named for her son, the nonprofit helps youth who are getting ready to transfer out of the foster care system by providing preparation, education and social support.
McGuiness earned a BA in Psychology and will begin Montclair State’s graduate program in Child Advocacy and Policy. She’s a court-appointed special advocate at CASA for Children of Essex County and volunteers with the mental health Crisis Text Line.
“The child welfare and juvenile justice systems in the U.S. are huge gateways to youth homelessness, which is re-traumatizing and becomes a hopeless cycle in many cases,” McGuiness says. “I am committed to helping eradicate homelessness one youth at a time, as I believe Charlie’s Home Youth Transition Program has the ability to empower today’s foster youth with tools for a successful transition and a continuation of social support.”
Miniature You is out to make gamers the heroes of their own story. As an example of their appeal, Elices recalls a girl born with a birth defect whose family ordered the personalized miniature at a convention stand. “We made the miniature right there in front of her, and the family was crying because they had never seen a hero who looked like her. She was able to look at the miniature and see herself as this powerful warrior princess.”
But despite its popularity – or because of it – the startup has hit “a series of bumps along the road,” Elices says. First launched in 2018, sales quickly outpaced what the tiny startup could handle. “I was working 60-, 80-hour weeks, sitting there digitally resculpting miniatures in this long, horrible, complicated process to actually make one,” Elices says. “Ultimately we could not scale up; we drowned under the orders and we failed.”
The couple regrouped, building software for digital printing and turning their home into a workshop, all while Da Silva, a junior international student from Brazil, works toward her degree in Molecular Biology with a minor in Chemistry.
“This whole thing is just very, very painfully bootstrapped,” Elices says. “One of the reasons I keep going – even when the workshop is on fire and we’ve run out of money and the card’s getting declined when we go to the supermarket – is because when we went to our first initial (tabletop convention) shows, we realized that while for us Miniature You is just a silly figurine with a face on it, for other people, this has a lot of meaning.”
Elices graduated with four majors: History, Political Science, Classical Studies, Latin, and a minor in Archeology.
“I figured, if I stress myself out to the maximum, push myself to the absolute limit, to know the stress and workload that I can handle, I’ll be prepared for whatever else life throws at me,” Elices says. “I went through the academic equivalent of lifting weights at Montclair State and that’s what allowed me to build this company.”
Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren