WSU students take innovation to business plan competition

Three undergraduate students from WSU are headed to Santa Barbara, Calif., March 3 and 4 as one of nine teams invited to participate as semifinalists in a national business plan competition.

College of Business senior Nick Rapagnani and bioengineering seniors Ahmad Bayomy and Sepideh Zolfaghari will present to a panel of judges at the third annual Spirit of Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development. Collegiate Entrepreneurship Venture Forum. A fourth member of their original team, Ben Eilers, a mechanical engineering student, graduated in December and will not attend the California competition.

Their company name is BERZ, based on the first initials of their last names. Their product is called “The Perspective,” a manual, height-adjusting wheelchair that would be an innovation in the mobility assistive equipment field of durable medical equipment. What their business plan proposes is seed funding to build a prototype of their innovation. The team hopes to incorporate their business soon.

The idea for the wheelchair innovation came from a class project sponsorship by St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute in Spokane. Based on his experience with a family member who uses a wheelchair, Bayomy and his teammates proposed a variation on the original plan. The team credits the advisory assistance from St. Luke’s, plus their professors and coursework, with inspiring their success to date.

“Presenting at the SEED competition is a great achievement for everybody in our team,” Rapagnani said. “I’m very proud of everyone who worked hard to get us there.” He considers the national competition as a step toward taking The Perspective from “an academic exercise to a commercial enterprise.”

“It’s really important for undergraduates to be part of something that is not only academic but gives experience in the commercial marketplace. The world is very competitive. It’s good to get this kind of experience,” Rapagnani said. He credits WSU for providing an outstanding environment for students to learn entrepreneurship. “It sets us (WSU) apart and other students will want to come here for it.”

The BERZ team also competed against 16 other business plan teams in the preliminary WSU Business Plan Competition held in the fall. They took first place in one of four leagues. BERZ and many other teams are expected to compete in the WSU competition finals on April 7 and 8 on the campus in Pullman. In Santa Barbara, BERZ will compete against students from Duke University, Syracuse University, the University of Georgia, the University of Houston, the University of Arizona, Westmont College, Columbia Business School, and Rice University.

The vision of the SEED competition is to put top collegiate business plans in front of a world-class panel of evaluators, early-stage investors, and product development specialists for two days to help transition start-up venture propositions from class projects into successful up-and-running businesses.

Accompanying the BERZ team to Santa Barbara will be Marie Mayes, director of the Innovation Assessment Center at WSU and a member of the faculty-staff team that has worked closely with Rapagnani, Bayomi, and Zolfaghari and others enrolled in a joint Entrepreneurship 496/Bioengineering 410-411 class. The two-semester course is taught by Jerman Rose, director of the WSU Center for Entrepreneurial Studies in the College of Business, and Denny Davis, bioengineering professor and director of the Engineering Education Research Center.