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Ninth annual Heller Startup Challenge

The ninth annual Heller Startup Challenge produced three winning social impact projects in tenant rights, regenerative seaweed farming and NFTs for fundraising. Running from last Friday, Nov. 12 evening to Sunday, Nov. 14 evening, participants of the challenge formed teams, conducted market research and developed a business model for their mission driven businesses. 


Ultimately, the Tenant2Tenant project conceived by Shiko Rugene (GRAD), Alton McCall (GRAD), Sam Aronson (GRAD) and Andy Mendez (GRAD) placed first and was voted the people’s choice in the competition. According to the Heller School Startup webpage, the nonprofit Tenant2Tenant project aims to “challenge the existing power dynamic between landlords and off-campus student tenants” by providing a platform where users can evaluate tenants and connect with other peers. 


The second place winners Beck Hayes (GRAD) and Ariel Wexler (GRAD) developed a startup called VertiAtlas. Their mission was to improve the coastal community quality of life in Latin America through efforts in vertical regenerative ocean seaweed farming. By partnering with women-led cooperatives to provide resources, training and new lanes within the global seaweed market, they can “offer alternative income streams for vulnerable families with a new and innovative farming practice,” the website reads. 


The third place winners Douglas Guernsey (GRAD) and Varun Edupuganti (GRAD) used 3D digital models to create artwork to sell to university donors. “We connect students, alumni and donors to the school’s mission by creating unique, interactive NFTs to support fundraising campaigns,” they report on the website. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are digital files with a unique fingerprint, serving as a digital means of collecting artwork. The team builds 3D models of biological molecules, jerseys, buildings and awards by collaborating with artists to communicate the stories of their partners.


Several Heller Startup Challenge winners shared their experience in an email interview with The Brandeis Hoot. Aronson is a first year social impact MBA student with a concentration in Sustainable International Development (SID) who contributed to the Tenant2Tenant project. He reports that the main challenge was to decide different avenues for funding for the for-profit and nonprofit models of their startup. “We didn’t decide to become a nonprofit until the very end, making the funding models a moving target,” he wrote. Overall Aronson says that he has grown in his ability to master in-class presentations. Pitching their project at the startup challenge made the presentations feel like a “cakewalk,” he wrote. 


Another participant, Wexler, is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPVC) pursuing an MBA with a focus in the SID program. Some of the challenges Wexler faced were not having a larger group to bounce ideas off of and predicting seafood farming financial output. However, Wexler’s team ultimately decided to base their business off of Chile due to the presence of abundant in-country seaweed processing plants, governmental subsidies for seaweed farming and the right ocean temperature conditions for successful harvest. 


Wexler wrote that “having to think through all of the facets of a business was an incredible experience. We learned how to be entrepreneurs and think through the feasibility of our project. The experience gave us confidence.” 


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