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Student entrepreneurs take third in innovation contest

by Mark Schwerin

Nov. 30, 2011 | WMU News

Photo of WMU's 2011 Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition team.
WMU's Accelerate Michigan team includes, left to right, engineering faculty members Drs. Steven Butt and Tyco Fredericks; students Joe Fodo, Dan Panozzo and Evan Maltas; and engineering dean Dr. Anthony Vizzini.
KALAMAZOO--A novel trailer hitch earned a team of three Western Michigan University students a $10,000 prize and third place in the student portion of the second Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition held Nov. 15-17 in Ypsilanti, Mich.

The student competition focuses on ideas that can scale and be valuable job creators, so it targets concepts with longer-term business viability that have potential to generate an immediate impact on Michigan's economy.

WMU's "Quick Hitch" team came in third out of 298 entrants by devising a way for an individual working alone to more easily back up a vehicle and hitch it to a trailer.

It finished behind two University of Michigan teams, but beat out every other participating school in the state. In 2010, the first year of the competition, UM swept past WMU and the other participants to take all three of the top spots.

All three members of Quick Hitch are majoring in the Industrial and Entrepreneurial Engineering Program. They are senior Dan Panozzo of Downers Grove, Ill., who led the team; senior Evan Maltas of Waverly, Iowa; and junior Joe Fodo of Stevensville, Mich.

The team's improved trailer hitch design is specifically made to help individuals connect their vehicle to a trailer without numerous attempts or the aid of someone waving back and forth in an effort to try and guide them somewhere close to the hitch. Its innovative hitch telescopes and rotates 180 degrees, making it a much less challenging task to connect to a vehicle. In addition, their hitch does this without losing any of the strength of a regular hitch.

The students developed the product as part of the product design course IME 3010: Entrepreneurial Engineering II taught by a team of engineering professors. The Quick Hitch group also worked with the Haworth College of Business to gain valuable market insight, which gave the team a competitive advantage. Panozzo used that insight in his presentation to judges.

The competition, which has both a student and a company category, is an international business plan contest that highlights Michigan as a robust and vibrant venue for innovation and business opportunity. Billing itself as the world's largest business plan competition, it provides cash prizes as well as in-kind awards of services, staffing and software.

Accelerate Michigan seeks to fuel innovation-based business growth by uncovering the best and brightest new business concepts from local and global entrepreneurs, exposing those opportunities to potential investment capital and fostering their growth within the state. It is organized by the Business Accelerator Network for Southeast Michigan, Business Leaders for Michigan, University Research Corridor and the New Economy Initiative.

This year's student and company contests awarded more than $1 million in prize money. Along with the 298 student entrants, it drew another 312 entrants from emerging companies. Most companies were from Michigan, but applicants also represented several U.S. states as well as countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom and India.

Ten student-team finalists competed on the final day of the contest for first-, second- and third-place prizes of $25,000, $15,000 and $10,000, respectively, while 10 company finalists competed for prizes of $500,000 to $10,000.

Taking first in the student category was Are You A Human LLC, a company that is developing technology to help verify that website users are humans and not automated programs. Coming in second was Fashion Forward Maternity, a concept for an online, subscription-based maternity and nursing clothing rental service.

This year's grand prize winner in the company category was DeNovo Sciences, a small medical-device startup in Plymouth Township, Mich. The top winner in 2010 was Armune BioScience Inc., a Kalamazoo-based maker of molecular diagnostic equipment.