Heller-led teams sweep at Brandeis’ largest start-up pitch competition

March 02, 2022

On Feb. 13, the Brandeis Innovation Center hosted its annual SparkTank pitch competition, an experiential learning community that provides seed funding and mentorship to turn innovative ideas into viable businesses. Unique among collegiate pitch competitions, SparkTank is open to students, faculty and staff from across the university.

Five Heller student teams entered the weekend-long competition and all received prizes. “In our Social Impact MBA program, we love to invest in students that are interested in creating high-impact ventures, mentoring and supporting them as they develop their ideas,” says Heller MBA program director Carole Carlson. “Heller students' success at SparkTank demonstrates the value of this high-touch ecosystem.” 

The five winning Heller teams included two food-related startups in the top prize-winning slots. Community-driven aquaculture venture Sowing Seas took first prize (led by Beck Hayes, MBA/MA SID’22 and Ariel Wexler, MBA/MA SID’22) and plant-based sustainable meal vendor Farmer Foodie (led by Alison Elliott, MBA/MA SID’22) shared second prize. 

Two Heller-led teams achieved third prize: non-fungible token company Mission NFT (Douglass Guernsey, MBA’22 and Varun Edupuganti, IBS MS’23) and renter support nonprofit Tenant2Tenant (Shiko Rugene, MBA/MPP’23, Alton McCall MBA’21, Samuel Aronson, MBA’21, Andy Mendez, MBA/MA SID’23). Monica Oxenreiter, MBA/MPP’21, Marissa Bresnahan, MBA'22 and Heidi Mizenko, MBA’21 took fourth prize with their venture, Neu, which seeks to destigmatize mental illness through inclusive apparel. 

Heller Board of Advisors member Sean Rush joined the judging panel. He says, “As a judge at the recent SparkTank competition, I was extremely impressed – but not surprised – by Heller's strong performance. It's been a treat to watch the Heller teams' development in Professor Carlson's classes, the Heller Startup Challenge, and now Spark. Bravo to all of them!”

Learn more about this year’s SparkTank winners from the Heller School:

First prize $5,000 - Sowing Seas

Beck Hayes MBA/MA SID’22, Ariel Wexler, MBA/MA SID’22

“Addressing food security is critical to feed a growing planet. We are connectors with a mission to improve coastal community livelihoods in Latin America through vertical regenerative ocean seaweed and shellfish farming. We provide training, resources, and new channels within the flourishing global seaweed market for vulnerable fishermen, women, and youth. By building community-led collectives, we can offer alternative income streams for families with a new and innovative farming practice.”

Second prize $3,500 - Farmer Foodie 

Alison Elliott, MBA/MA SID’22

“The Farmer Foodie operates sustainably and considers our impact with a carbon negative business model. Our product is an ecommerce, non-perishable, protein packed, plant-based Mac and Cheese. Ingredients are sourced from regenerative organic farms with no-till practices, storing carbon dioxide in the soil. This contributes to the low initial environmental footprint of our product. Target customers include millennials and Gen Z adults who want a quick, low-impact, delicious meal.”

Third prize $2,500 - Mission NFT 

Douglass Guernsey, MBA’22, Varun Edupuganti, IBS MS’23

“We connect students, alumni and donors to the school's mission by creating unique, interactive NFTs to support fundraising campaigns. From digital research molecules, to jerseys, buildings and awards, we work with artists to create beautiful and inspirational NFTs from the unique stories of our partners. Our platform is everything the university needs to create branded NFTs, from consultation to marketing to drop.”

Third prize, $2,500 - Tenant2Tenant

Shiko Rugene, MBA/MPP’23, Alton McCall MBA’21, Samuel Aronson, MBA’21, Andy Mendez, MBA/MA SID’23

“Tenant2Tenant is a nonprofit organization seeking to challenge the existing power dynamic between landlords and off-campus student tenants. Tenant2Tenant provides a platform to evaluate landlords, offers a consolidated place for resources, and connects students with their peers. Relationships with local universities enable us to reach vulnerable students in need of support, while creating a safe ecosystem to exchange information.”

Fourth prize $2,000 - Neu

Monica Oxenreiter, MBA/MPP’21, Marissa Bresnahan, MBA'22 and Heidi Mizenko, MBA’21 

“Neu aims to demystify and destigmatize mental illness through our inclusive community and fashionable apparel line that utilizes innovative technology to support people in conquering the challenges of everyday life. This apparel will include OmniFiber, a special type of fabric that can help regulate breathing to mitigate symptoms of major mental health conditions.”