Berea College students Ishwar Agarwal, Tran Nguyen and Amar Zulejhic won first place and $7,500 in the business model category at the Idea State U contest Saturday in Lexington. Idea State U, a statewide business plan and model competition that encourages entrepreneurship among Kentucky’s college and university students, is funded by The Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development’s Office of Entrepreneurship, in partnership with the Kentucky Innovation Network. The Idea State U business plan competition is open to all post-secondary institutions in Kentucky and rewards creative entrepreneurial students.
Beginning in March, Idea State U whittles down 45 teams from four regional competitions to 15 for the final business model event. Each team presents its business concept to a panel of judges for the opportunity to earn a share of a $100,000 prize pool.
In the Lexington region, the Berea College student team was coached by members of the Kentucky Innovation Network at Eastern Kentucky University in preparation for competition in the Business Model track. Staff members of the Kentucky Innovation Network Kristel Smith and Stephanie Purvis and MBA candidate, Parajuli Sanjeev, adopted the Berea College team and guided them through the stages of the completion and the production of a video, collateral marketing materials, a one-minute sales pitch, written materials and a 15 minute oral presentation.
The Berea College team proposed Axle, an online two-sided marketplace, similar to AirBnB, Uber and Nomad, where shade tree mechanics offer high-quality personalized auto repair and auto maintenance services to advance independent business ownership at an affordable cost for car users at their convenient hours and location through a five-step model promoting trust and transparency.
In 2015, Ishwar and Tran were members of EcoClean, a coin-operated B-Corp that took third place in the business model category at Idea State U winning $2,500. When Amar, a sophomore computer science major returned this fall semester from a Startup Weekend in Lexington, Amar uncovered the problem faced by 210 national licensed motorists who experienced the “upselling” techniques of auto repairers and maintenance providers. This practice was quite common especially after car warranties expired and customers sought the word-of-mouth family and friends referrals who had found reliable, honest and useful service mechanics.
Amar then approached Professor Peter Hackbert, Director of Berea College’s Entrepreneurship for the Public Good Program for advice. “Dr. Hackbert made three recommendations. First that I reach out to Ishwar, because of his repeated success in hackathon regional competitions.” Hackbert believed that Ishwar could bring his computer science knowledge to the problem,” said Amar.
“Ishwar recommended Tran Nguyen, a public policy interdisciplinary major, who Ishwar partnered with in 2015, to the Axle team.”
“Second, Professor Hackbert recommended that the team ask Christopher Miller, the Associate Director of the Appalachian Center and the Exhibits Director for guidance on designing the collateral marketing materials,” reported Zulejhic.
“Third, Dr. Hackbert taught us the value of customer discovery interviews. We conducted 51 interviews of auto aftermarket service providers and baffled customers. These recommendations got Axle started,” stated Zulejhic.
After a fourth place finish in the regional event, the Axle team conducted a pivot. Ishwar stated, “we needed to figure out how to communicate our value proposition, and we designed a web-based prototype that displayed the dual-sided model. We revamped our video. We conducted additional Louisville interviews and signed up both mechanics and customers through their website.”
“We honed our oral presentation, as well,” said Tran, “that appealed to the judges.”