Venture Challenge: Innovators dazzle, CountryBox soars

Country boys: Team CountryBox -- Henry Crayton, Rory Murphy and Lerthon Theuma -- deliver their $20,000 performance during the final round of the 2017 Hofstra-Digital Remedy Venture Challenge. (Photo by Bob Giglione).
By GREGORY ZELLER //

An e-commerce website pitched by a trio of undergraduate students walked off with top honors, and a hefty $20,000 check, in Tuesday’s final round of the Hofstra-Digital Remedy Venture Challenge Series.

Envisioned by Class of 2017 seniors Henry Crayton, Rory Murphy and Lerthon Theuma, CountryBox – designed to bring “care packages” from the old country to expats living abroad – edged out nine other finalists in the annual student business-plan competition.

The Venture Challenge is the brainchild of Hofstra alum Mike Seiman, founder and CEO of New York City-based digital media company CPXi, which reformed this year as Digital Remedy. Digital Remedy remains the competition’s financial sponsor.

Second place, and its $12,500 prize, went to LegalSoft Inc., a startup developing cloud-based software for elder-law attorneys, presented by the team of Louis DeVito, Jacob Hochendoner and Adam Hussain. Third place ($7,500) was awarded to Bling Box, a monthly jewelry subscription box proposed by Hofstra law student Farhanna Zainul.

Soft touch: Team LegalSoft takes the stage. (Photo by Bob Giglione)

Mark Lesko, executive dean of the Hofstra University Center for Entrepreneurship, noted “the most competitive competition, by far, we’ve ever had,” but said the judges got it right in bestowing top marks to CountryBox.

“It was a superb combination of an intriguing business plan and an excellent presentation,” Lesko told Innovate LI. “The CountryBox team is amongst the most coachable group of founders we’ve ever worked with. They literally demanded input and feedback on a daily basis, and all of their hard work showed.

“They really brought it tonight.”

Two finalists – Flare, a scheduling and payment app pitched by undergrads Carissa Anderson and Nadif Bracey, and Tell Me, a service designed to instantly differentiate between fact and opinion, proposed by computer science students Christopher Davie, Amy Topka and Zach Vampola – earned honorable mentions and $400 awards.

The 10 finalists were whittled down from 86 applicants – both solo acts and student teams, mostly undergrads – who answered the call for submissions for the annual contest, previously known as the CPXi Venture Tech Challenge. All applicants were invited to attend a daylong “boot camp” held in early March at the university’s ideaHUb collaborative workspace, exposing them to topical workshops and speed-mentoring rounds with Hofstra’s six Entrepreneurs-in-Residence.

While helping several of the young innovators prepare for the next level, the camp also convinced many applicants they weren’t ready to take their ideas to the next level, Lesko noted. Only 35 of the original solopreneurs and teams made it to the Venture Challenge’s March 16 semifinal round, where the 10 finalists were chosen.

Tuesday’s final round, which saw those 10 finalists face off in a “Shark Tank”-like pitch-a-thon at Hofstra’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication, was judged by an esteemed panel representing a healthy cross-section of entrepreneurship and capital strategy.

Boxed in: Farhanna Zainul’s Bling Box scored with judges. (Photo by Bob Giglione)

Joining Seiman at the judges’ table were Janet Lenaghan, vice dean of Hofstra’s Frank G. Zarb School of Business; former Northwell Health COO Charles Trunz; Mukesh Patel, founder of New Jersey co-working space JuiceTank; and Jeff Leventhal, CEO of Huntington-based tech consultancy Work Rails.

Leventhal was also one of the university’s first six Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, along with experienced angel investor and former Primatics Financial CEO Kevin Hessilberg; Saltaire Capital Partners Managing Director Mike Quilty; former 1099Partners Managing Partner Peter Kestenbaum; serial entrepreneur Aaron Foss, who teaches entrepreneurship classes at Molloy College in Rockville Centre and is perhaps best known as the creator of highly successful robocall blocker Nomorobo; and Suffolk County Planning Commission member Barbara Roberts, who is also a member of the New York Angels investment group and an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Columbia Business School.

Each of the 10 finalists, in advance of Tuesday’s final round, submitted an executive summary discussing their product or service and their commercialization plan, based largely on pointers gleaned from the university’s current Entrepreneurs-in-Residence (Leventhal no longer resides). On Tuesday, they also each offered a five-minute pitch before the judges and an enthusiastic audience inside the Herbert School auditorium, followed by a three-minute Q&A with the judges.

Mark Lesko: Innovation is served at Hofstra.

Finalists finishing out the money included Dr. Multi-Tech, a student-run smartphone- and tablet-repair service targeting college campuses pitched by Ariel Dure and Stacie Camirand; Energym, a system designed to convert bicycle-generated energy into electrical power, proposed by Michelle Romeo and Kristopher Wagner; and MyEngineer, a digital patient-management system for hospitals designed by Sony Abraham.

Also falling just short: Relief, an omnichannel public health system that helps users locate clean and safe public restrooms in cities around the country proposed by Brandi Kinard and Tyrone Harmon, and Retail Quest, a gamified instant-awards system for retail employees pitched by David Harupa Jr., Eric Monsurez and Ian Fade.

While not every proposal carried the day in Tuesday’s final round, the eminence of the 10 finalists bodes very well for Hofstra innovation and the university’s entrepreneurial spirit, according to Lesko.

“The quality level was extraordinarily high,” the executive dean said. “The business ideas were well-conceived. The pitches were polished. It was a tough decision, and the judges spent considerable time debating who should win.

“The thing that made me proudest was how our Hofstra students rose to the challenge,” Lesko added. “They showcased ideas and presentation skills that really were amazing for college students.”