Hofstra’s CPXi pitch challenge nears finals

Mike Seiman, CPXi founderCPXi founder Mike Seiman is the man behind the prize money at Hofstra's annual student business plan contest.

Hofstra University is shaking up this year’s CPXi Venture Tech Challenge, a $100,000 student business-plan contest that’s touted as one of the richest in the country.

Now in its third year, the challenge offers students the chance to pitch new products or services with hopes of winning $50,000 in seed funding, or smaller amounts for finishing in the top five.

New for 2015: The judges will be entering the April 29 finals without prior knowledge of the entries, meaning it all comes down to a five-minute Shark Tank-style presentation before a panel of local technology executives and Hofstra faculty.

Among them: CPXi founder Mike Seiman, the 2001 Hofstra grad (BS, computer science) and trustee who funds the annual competition.

“As opposed to us pre-deciding where this is going to go, this will be much more of a TechCrunch kind of competition,” Seiman said, referring to the investment contests hosted by the international digital media giant. “Last year, we had a lot of time to look over everything and really started formulating opinions beforehand. This year, it’s more like a VC pitch meeting.”

How exactly the $100,000 is split will be decided on judging day, although Seiman said last year’s formula – $50K to the winner, $20K to a runner-up and three awards of $10K – remains likely.

This year, 17 teams will pitch plans they’ve been working on since December. In 2014, senior Brian Blanco and sophomore Ashish Pandhi took home the top prize for a social media scheduling- and blog-management platform called Queue+, with fourth-year medical student Phillip Henneman placing second.

Queue+ is already on the market. Henneman’s pitch, for a solution that lowers the failure rate of brain shunts and warns users that they’re about to fail, will take years to develop into a market-ready product, but it “shows real promise,” according to Seiman.

The first-place winner of the inaugural 2013 contest, Class of 2015’s Michael Moskie, developed hardware and software to make 3D printing more accessible to users while increasing the stability of 3D printing machines, all of which became the basis for his Bellmore-based startup, Pillar Printing.

Seiman had no similar leg up when he started CPXi, a New York City-based digital media company that provides tech services that improve Web functionality.

“I didn’t have a lot of access to VC or angel equity when I started,” Seiman told InnovateLI. “I had to go my own route and figure out how to become an entrepreneur, on top of determining what kind of business I wanted to start.

“Now that I’m successful, I want to help other students,” he said. “I hear real horror stories from people all the time about trying to raise money. I want to give an opportunity to students who have an idea like I did, without them having to go out and raise angel money.”

“This is a great way for someone to start a business and be profitable more quickly,” he added. “And they don’t have to take the ‘new traditional’ route of having to raise venture capital to get there.”

Hofstra professor Kevin Craig, director of the school’s Center for Innovation and its Robotics and Advanced Manufacturing Lab, has served as this year’s point-person for student teams.

The professor has helped team members make sure they meet contest criteria – among them, the chances of raising further capital, proposed product safety and the likelihood of ultimately getting to market – and polish the five-minute elevator speeches they’ll be making in front of a live audience and the gaggle of judges.

“My advice to them is to make it as impassioned as possible,” Craig said.