Columbia Startup Weekend attracts variety of ideas, attendees

From peanut butter packaged in stick form to an app that helps people share leftover food, a wide gamut of business ideas were pitched and developed by 10 teams at this year’s Columbia Startup Weekend.

“The goal of the Startup Weekend is to get people to take some time away from their jobs and their stresses to actually focus on something that they thought potentially could be a business idea,” said Alyssa Patzius, facilitator of the event.

The annual event ran from Friday night through Sunday evening at Veterans United Home Loans in Columbia. Startup Weekend events are held all over the world, following the same general format: Participants pitch business ideas on opening night; teams form around some of those ideas and spend the weekend building on them; and final presentations to judges on closing night determine what teams win awards. Teams this weekend were judged based on three criteria: business model, idea validation and execution and design.

Although many teams don’t continue for long beyond the weekend, the Columbia event has given rise to companies like Equipment Share and Zapier, which remain thriving businesses years after they were pitched at Startup Weekend.

Columbia Startup Weekend, now in its ninth year, drew attendees from as far away as Wisconsin and Alaska, according to Patzius.

“We want to bring people who may have never known each other and who want to be able to create something that hopefully could better the community,” Patzius said.

Three teams received awards this year: Safe Skies, an app to help paragliders determine whether it’s safe and legal to fly; Ziften, a platform to connect university researchers with students looking to be hired as assistants; and Q For A Cause, a question-and-answer website to benefit charities.

Ensuring ‘Safe Skies’ for paragliders
The Safe Skies team won two awards at Columbia Startup Weekend. | Rashi Shrivastava/Missouri Business Alert

“When and where is it safe and legal to fly?” Connor Ruhl asked during his presentation before showing video of a paraglider struggling to maintain balance in harsh and windy weather. His team, Safe Skies, won two awards — one for its business model, and the other as the “community’s choice.”

Ruhl, a paraglider himself, followed up the footage with a contradicting statistic.

“Paragliding is safer per hour than riding a motorcycle on the street,” he said. “But, if you don’t have answers to that question, because you didn’t do the background research, and didn’t look at the weather, that’s what can happen.”

There are about 30,000 paragliders around the world, Ruhl said, but gathering information on weather conditions and legality of flying is both time-consuming and challenging.

“I’m looking at 10 different apps and spend a lot of time figuring out whether or not it is a good day,” he said.

Over the weekend, the team came up with an idea to develop a one-stop app for everything paragliders need to know before they take off. The team decided to make all safety related information free but charge for premium features.

“If this app does well, there are a lot of other (activities) that deserve the same kind of specific treatment,” he said about the scalability of the company.

Connecting researchers and students

Another team, Ziften, won the award for its execution and design. Inneké L. Vargas, who is majoring in psychology at Wichita State University, said the process for making research connections is inefficient.

“Opportunities are hard to find if you’re not part of a network,” Vargas said.

Ziften, which is named after the Dutch word for “sifting,” Vargas said, would enable researchers to create a posting including their topic, qualifications required and project timeframe. Students could also create a profile with credentials, topics of interest and lab equipment that they want to work with, she said.

“Bringing people together in this way means that Ziften truly deconstructs the silos in academic settings, and it encourages interdisciplinary research opportunities,” she said.

The company’s main clients would be university decision makers, she said and the product could fetch roughly $10,000 a year for licensing per institution.

“In research, time is money,” she said. ”If you are a researcher and you’re on a grant, you know you have an expiration date on that, and you have to find someone really quickly.”

Answering questions, helping charities 

The goal of Q For A Cause is to help users ask questions, get answers and support good causes.

“Through research, we found that thought leaders, influencers and top-level executives at companies have extra time and they like to create new connections with people, ” said Brandon Banks, part of the team behind Q For A Cause.

The team’s idea, which won the award for idea validation, is to create a question-and-answer platform through which people pay a dollar to ask influencers or thought leaders questions on topics ranging from fitness to taxes.

“People asked … Google 3.5 billion questions every single day,” Banks said. “So there’s a need for information and need for good quality answers.”

The company would generate revenue by charging a processing fee for each transaction, Banks said.

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