This post originally appeared on the Harbert College of Business newsroom.
Tiger Cage was developed to develop entrepreneurs that will succeed in the real world, with real world circumstances. That means keeping your eye on the ball when everything around you is uncertain and identifying the way through, and that is exactly what we are doing today.
The Harbert College of Business is committed to providing a superior student experience, increase cross-campus partnerships, develop graduates who are highly-skilled, professionally-prepared, confident, ethical, and globally-minded. The annual Tiger Cage Business Idea Competition checks those boxes.
COVID-19 shut down businesses, parks, and schools. But it didn’t shut down the annual Tiger Cage Student Business Idea Competition.
Auburn University’s premier student-led entrepreneurship competition crowned a winner on Friday, April 10, as SwiftSku, a platform that brings Big Data to convenience stores – created by Daniel Mazur, a senior in mechanical engineering, and Mit Patel, a senior in mechanical engineering and accounting – secured first place and $25,000 in capital funding.
In its sixth year, the 2020 version of the Tiger Cage finals was the first held in a completely remote format. Four finalists submitted business plans and presentation videos to 15 industry professional judges, then met with the judges remotely on April 10 for individual question-and-answer sessions.
“Three things played an important role in our ability to move forward,” said Lou Bifano, Director of Entrepreneurship Strategy at the Harbert College of Business, which sponsors the event. “First, Zoom’s video conferencing capabilities allowed all the judges, and teams, to meet together virtually. Second, video creation and editing technology, which our students were able to quickly master and use to create high-quality pitch videos. Third, and most importantly, was the conviction by everyone involved – students, faculty, staff, and judges – that we could, and should, push forward in spite of the Covid-19 virus.”
University activities have been canceled since March 12, in the spirit of health and safety. The Tiger Cage final round was originally scheduled for March 27.
This environment is simply an example of exactly what Auburn and this program are all about … we believe in work, hard work, and we love it, and we cannot let any circumstance get in our way.
Harbert alum Mark Forchette, emcee for the event and CEO of Delphinus Technologies, said staring uncertain times in the face is something entrepreneurs do every day. “This (COVID-19) is unchartered territory and the backdrop to this year’s Tiger Cage final round is a set of real world circumstances that require us to think differently and find new ways to proceed,” he said. “This environment is simply an example of exactly what Auburn and this program are all about … we believe in work, hard work, and we love it, and we cannot let any circumstance get in our way.
“Tiger Cage was developed to develop entrepreneurs that will succeed in the real world, with real world circumstances. That means keeping your eye on the ball when everything around you is uncertain and identifying the way through, and that is exactly what we are doing today.”
Bifano was confident the competition would continue, despite adversity. “We’ve always known that entrepreneurs are a gritty bunch and able to persevere in the face of adversity,” he said. “Once we were sure we could safely continue with the competition and conduct coaching and mentoring sessions remotely, it was an easy decision to move forward with the finals.”
Khiari McAlpin, the 2019 Auburn University Young Entrepreneur of the Year and creator of Vinehouse Nursery in Alabaster, Alabama, served as one of the judges and was “overwhelmed by how amazing this competition was.”
“When COVID-19 started, I immediately felt bad for this competition,” said McAlpin, a 2010 College of Education graduate. “I thought, ‘How in the world are we going to finish the competition and stay in compliance with state and federal agencies and health officials?’ As always, I thought, ‘it’s Auburn University. Where there is a will, there is a way.’ I personally want to thank all of the contestants for their continued dedication and hard work, especially during these challenging times.”
Patel helped his parents manage multiple convenience stores since he was 13 years old. By the time he was 15, he started writing software to automate away inefficiencies in their c-stores as well as several other businesses.
Mazur has been tackling projects together with Patel for the past eight years, ranging from starting their own E-Commerce marketplace to building the world’s first solar powered wireless capable power bank to a comprehensive blockchain solution for health records.
SwiftSku provides the IQ Module, a hardware device that plugs into a customers’ point of sale system that securely transmits transaction information for Big Data analytics. The team already has customers in five states.
“Winning Tiger Cage allows SwiftSku to certify our loyalty program, a crucial next step on our roadmap to capturing c-stores all over the United States,” said Patel, who added that he and Mazur hope to return to Tiger Cage one day as judges. “SwiftSku is positioned to achieve extraordinary growth in the coming months.
“The Tiger Cage program forced us to organize SwiftSku’s approach toward customer acquisition and take care of a few components of business development which had not been considered. It also made us consider various options regarding outside investors and whether or not we want to consider outside funding.”
Tara Wilson, the 2018 Auburn University Co-Entrepreneur of the Year and CEO of the Tara Wilson Agency who served among the panel of judges and is a 1997 Harbert College finance alum, praised Mazur and Patel for having a great understanding of the market.
“They know what market they’re going after. It is so specific that they are able to truly target it. So instead of developing a product that can be provided for a variety of businesses, they have really honed in on something specific — the convenience store business owner.
“They picked a market that they could penetrate. They clearly understand the market they’re going after. They develop products that solve a true problem. It’s not a problem that they’ve guessed at, not a problem that they assume about, but they have truly identified from having themselves operate it in that marketplace through their own families’ businesses, as well as interviews with other business owners in that market. And they have identified how to solve those pain points.”
Everett Connor, a senior in finance at the Harbert College, took second place and $12,000 in capital funding with his business idea BrewMats, a portable mat that allows Beer Pong to be played without fear of knocking over plastic cups.
Third place and $7,000 in capital funding went to Remora Robotics a robotic drone that cleans waterways (Zach Wadzinski, Gi Lee, Harrison Smith and Dakota Newsome, from the Ginn College of Engineering).
Fourth place and $5,000 in capital funding went to BluePrint Pal, and a weatherproof box that protects blueprints and attaches to the rear of vehicles in the construction industry (Tyler Deaton, Jake Christner, Ryan Pollard, Liana Wood, and David Armstrong, from the Ginn College of Engineering).
“Each team was very professional and that meant a lot to me in so many ways,” said McAlpin. “As a young professional, you do not come across college students who not only look professional, but also present in such a professional manner.”
The original Tiger Cage in 2015 showcased just 19 teams. This year’s Tiger Cage initiative began in September with 102 students with 47 different business ideas.
“I’m most proud of our student entrepreneurs and what they have accomplished in a few short weeks,” Bifano added. “It is a privilege to have the opportunity to work with them. The heaviest lifting fell on them and they delivered.”