RIT 'Shark Tank' Conference Inspires Students

Jeremiah Thompson, Tyler Swob and Shane Qualls won first place in RIT's Shark Tank Competition. Photo, Democrat and Chronicle.

By Bennett J. Loudon, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

A three-student team of students from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf won the “shark tank” competition and a $2,000 prize Friday at the 2012 Entrepreneurs Conference at Rochester Institute of Technology.

The students — Tyler Swob, 20, a fourth-year applied math major from San Diego, 22-year-old Jeremiah Thompson, a fourth-year business management student from Olathe, Kansas, and 30-year-old Shane Qualls, a third-year computer integrated machining technology major also from Olathe — invented an underwater communication system for SCUBA divers.

“I’m seriously considering a master’s in engineering management degree so this is going to help with my master’s program,” Swob said through a sign-language interpreter.

The trio finished second in last year’s competition with an idea for a system that communicates between sports referees and hearing-impaired players.

The shark tank competition came at the end of the one-day conference that included keynote speaker Austin McChord, a 2009 RIT graduate and the founder and CEO of Datto Inc. In five years, McChord grew Datto from a basement start-up to an award-winning provider of data backup and disaster recovery service with 100 employees and revenue in the millions.

The conference, attended by about 600 people, also included a talk by Luis von Ahn, an associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and a founder of CAPTCHA, the online anti-spam application. Von Ahn discussed his new free online language learning initiative called Duolingo.

“The conference is one of a variety of programs that involves getting students active collecting their ideas and then helping them get the experiential education to advance it,” said Richard DeMartino, director the RIT’s Simone Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Alissa Anderson, 22, of Clifton Park, Saratoga County, a mechanical engineering student who attended the conference, said she doesn’t have a specific idea yet, but she hopes to have her own business some day.

“I don’t come from a marketing background so I’ve been picking up a lot of marketing tricks and ideas for how to use technology on the business side of things,” she said.

About 50 teams of students applied for the shark tank contest. Five finalists were chosen to make a five-minute presentation to a panel of judges.

Brad Linch, 20, of Santa Fe, N.M., and his partner Mohammed Alhamed, won second prize of $1,250 with their idea for an application that gets Internet users to click on banner ads by paying them a small cash reward.

“This was good for us because this was really our first time trying to make money with the idea. This was our first presentation. It definitely helped us a lot,” Linch said.


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