The idea came to Hassan Kashif after an unpleasant visit to the dentist. “My dental hygienist and my dentist were not happy with me because of my poor flossing skills.” His lack of dental dexterity, he says, cost him three new cavities. “Nobody is a fan of flossing.”
The result: Dr. Floss, a device that can floss all of a user’s teeth simultaneously—and a first-place win in the annual Startup Montclair Pitch Competition at Montclair State University’s Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. The device is c-shaped to fit in a flosser’s mouth and made from biodegradable material.
Kashif and his Dr. Floss partner, Zaki Tahir, took home $25,000 in cash and business support valued at $31,000. Kashif said the possibility of getting that support was the main motivating factor for the pair’s entry into the competition. The services include cloud credits and tech support from AWS Start-Ups, free provisional patent applications from Gearhart LLC and website training and services from Wix.
The Feliciano Center was founded in 2014 and has been running pitch competitions since. Carley Graham Garcia, the center’s executive director, said she added two categories to the contest for 2020: A Female Founder’s group and a Community Prize open to Montclair-based businesses.
“There’s a ton of writing around how women founders are underfunded, so we deliberately wanted to make a prize category that was equal in its amount to the first-place prize,” Garcia explains. The Female Founders prize winners also got $25,000 and the business support services.
“Tons of small businesses right now are hurting, a lot of startups are hurting, so we carved out a very small amount from our prize pot – $2,500 – to support a community startup that was either in Montclair, Clifton or Little Falls,” Garcia says.
This year’s judging was done remotely by video – the student groups made their pitches on April 22; the community entrants went on May 1. The judges were Jill Johnson, chief executive officer of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership; Steven Rosenblatt, co-founder and general partner at Oceans Ventures; and Ricardo Tavera, a serial entrepreneur.
The Female Founders group was open to teams in which women comprise more than 50 percent of the leadership. The winning team created Garbage Wine, a business that makes wine out of fruit that is unsuitable for sale – either because it is cosmetically unappealing or overripe, for example. It was founded by Melissa Spigelman, Rashelle Jackson and James Reilly.
Spigelman, a molecular biology major who just finished her freshman year, says Reilly described the idea for making wine from unwanted fruit while they worked together in a lab. “I care about the environment a lot and so does he,” Spigelman says. “I work in a restaurant, so I saw how much food waste we were throwing out. And it just really made me upset that the fruit couldn’t go to any use.”
She said they use six fruits – blueberries, pears, raspberries, strawberries, bananas and apples – and each produces wine with different flavors and characteristics. For example, the blueberry has a deep purple color and is dry. The group is marketing it as a red wine. The pear is sweeter and will be marketed as a white.
They call the product Baj Wine – Garbage Wine is the name of the company. “Our target markets are millennials and Gen Z, so we feel that the name will draw them in,” Spigelman explains. “But we feel our message will help speak to them.”
Vicky Roncero, the winner of the Community Prize, has been running Roncero Reiki in Montclair for three years, helping clients improve and maintain their physical and mental well-being. Reiki is a method for relaxation and stress reduction developed in Japan. Roncero is a Reiki master practitioner and teacher who became interested in the techniques after being laid off from a job in the television industry.
“It’s basically tapping into your body’s energy,” Roncero explains. “Reiki is actually connecting with your energy, testing imbalances in your energy that could lead to a chronic illness down the line or that could keep you in less than optimal wellness. So, when your energy is aligned and flowing, your whole body and wellness is flowing in a better state.”
Roncero’s idea that carried the day at the pitch competition was Reikids, which, as the name implies, is Reiki for children. With parents and kids spending their days at home waiting out a frightful pandemic, Roncero is positioned to serve an expanded clientele. And she says her distance healing – over the phone or texting – is just as effective as in-person treatments.
The inspiration for Reikids came from clients who told Roncero that they thought the techniques would benefit their children. “I had this idea of not using the vocabulary of Reiki, not trying to get kids through understanding this because some parents even have a hard time grasping it,” she says. “But to just teach it to kids in really simple ways using my writing and producing skills from children’s television.” She uses songs and other activities that kids can readily embrace.
The winners will continue to reap the benefits of their prizes for many months. “We’re trying to continue to support these teams off campus at a new incubator called the Montclair Innovation Lab,” Garcia says. Right now, the incubator space is being used to make personal protection equipment, but the university plans to turn it into a coworking space in June.
Like Kashif, Roncero says the business support portion of the prize is more attractive than the cash. She sees the Feliciano Center providing what is essentially a focus group for her to test her ideas. “So, if I want to do one of my Reiki workshops that I’m thinking of making into an online class, that would be invaluable to have a little test audience.”
Spigelman says she and her Garbage Wine colleagues want to use the prize money to expand beyond the kitchen and basement they now use to create and ferment their product. And they are getting advice on how to seek new investments. “We really want to go on ‘Shark Tank’,” she says, referring to the ABC-TV pitch competition series.
While Kashif is hoping to expand Dr. Floss, the biology major, who will be a senior next year, has a backup plan. He would like to become a dentist.