Entrepreneurs compete for funding at student showcase

Daniel Zhu | Daily Trojan

To celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit of USC students during Trojan Family Weekend, student entrepreneurs across different schools and disciplines competed for funding at the 11th Annual USC Stevens Student Innovator Showcase. At the event, students showcased their ideas and startup inventions in the hopes of receiving USC-sponsored funding to further develop and fine-tune their products. Ten finalists received different prizes.

Twenty-four teams were present to set up booths and consequently pitch their ideas and companies. Each hoped to win one of the $31,000 cash prizes allocated for student entrepreneurs’ beta launches, prototypes and product developments.

Luke Vincent Naman, a medical student represented Vibraille, a company creating braille e-readers. He was one of the finalists of the showcase. During the event, Naman set up a booth displaying a laptop connected to a television playing a presentation of Vibraille. In front of the television was a Vibraille prototype Naman said he created using popsicle sticks, vibration motors and hot glue.

“[Vibraille] uses vibrations across your entire hand to read instead of your fingertips reading raised or flat dots,” Naman said. “Its purpose is to provide a cheaper alternative to the e-readers that are on the market currently.”

According to Naman, a braille e-reader can cost thousands of dollars. Creating a cheaper alternative could help the blind population increase reading speeds and legibility.

Naman said he developed Vibraille during the summer. That is when he began researching competitors and seeking feedback.

“I took an early prototype to the Braille Institute Los Angeles [Center] and had it tested with one of the blind heads of technology,” Naman said.

Although each competing project differed greatly from each other — from technologically advanced products like Vibraille aimed at serving an underrepresented population to an all-in-one dipping sauce for Asian cuisine — teams also had to focus on professionally honing and delivering their pitch to interested entrepreneurs and judges.

“[As entrepreneurs], we have been able to grow as the result of each pitch competition,” said alumnus Maxine Lau, the co-founder of Lahtt Sauce, another top finalist in the Student Innovator Showcase.

Lahtt Sauce is an all-in-one sauce for dipping, stir-fry and marinade, which the founders describe as a health-conscious, authentic, bold and modern addition to any comfort food.

Lau and her partner Qiyuan You, a graduate student studying social entrepreneurship, wanted to participate in the competition to improve their product pitch to potential consumers and judges.

When Lau and You began pitching their product, Lau said they worked to better market their product and their gross profit margin as a company. Each piece of advice they received in pitch competitions was an actionable step the founders were able to apply to improve Lahtt Sauce.

Lau and You have already placed Lahtt Sauce in numerous specialty stores and hope to receive funding from the showcase to launch in natural grocers such as Whole Foods Market.

As two of the top 10 finalists, Vibraille and Lahtt Sauce presented a three-minute pitch on stage in front of an audience and a panel of nine industry judges. Nine judges selected five teams for awards while the sixth team was decided by a democratic voting system. Naman won the $2,500 Most Potentially Disruptive Award and Lau and You received the $2,500 Venture Validation Award.

“This whole experience has really made me critical of what I’m creating,” Naman said. “To inspect every aspect of Vibraille in ways I hadn’t thought of before.”