Posted by Christian Cortes
All my life I have dreamt of becoming an entrepreneur, but never in a million years would I have guessed that I would get an opportunity during my very first semester of college. It all started when I received an email from a fellow researcher in my lab named Jai Ghanekar. The email invited lab members to compete in a local hackathon hosted by AT&T. Without hesitation, I jumped at the opportunity. As an aspiring entrepreneur majoring in engineering, an event focused around designing and presenting new devices and apps seemed like a perfect fit. I ended up only being able to attend the final day of the weekend, arriving just in time to listen to Jai and his team pitch their app. Sadly, they were not able to get the app to work with the software chosen by the sponsor of the hackathon, so they could only present a concept. The concept was an app and a sensor that would fix the parking problem at UTD. Although the software was not working at the time of the hackathon, I knew Jai’s idea had an immense amount of potential considering parking was one of UTD’s most prominent issues. I told him that I was interested in pursuing the idea alongside him, so we exchanged contact information and he told me we would be in touch.
Three weeks passed without hearing anything from Jai, and I thought that was the end of it. Then one day while I was in the McDermott Office, Kim (one of the McDermott Scholars’ assistant directors) told me she wanted to speak with me. Knowing that I wanted to pursue entrepreneurship in college, she showed me a flyer for a program called LaunchPad that was meant to help students turn a concept to a startup in just ten weeks. The following day, I went to the LaunchPad interest session and was met by a familiar face. There was Jai, aplying for the same program. We ended up teaming up and applying together. Once we were accepted into the program, it was all hands on deck. We decided to recruit 2014 McDermott Scholar Hans Ajieren to join our team. During the first few weeks, we met with faculty and professors who were interested in our idea ranging from the head of our lab, to a CS professor, and even the head of the Venture Development Center at UTD. Everyone wanted to be part of fixing the university’s parking. After spending weeks running through countless models for our sensors and app, we decided that we were going to submit our idea to the UTD business idea competition. We submitted our company under the name “Torus.”
My life became consumed with Torus. Whether it was meeting with other parking based startups or talking to the Vice President of Platinum Parking, I was constantly trying to figure out the best direction to take our business. While Jai and Hans were focusing their time building the app and sensor, I was doing market research, comparing financial plans, and creating an executive summary. Before I knew it, I was three days away from the semi-final pitching round. For those 72 hours, I didn’t waste a single second. Surviving off energy drinks and pepperoni pizza, I worked straight through the nights trying to perfect my presentation. I even reached out to Nikhil Karnik, a 2011 McDermott Scholar and previous UTD business competition winner, who spent time conferencing with my team to help us prepare.
As the caffeine started wearing off, I found myself crammed into a conference room on the fourth floor of JSOM with a group of tired-looking judges who longed to go home already. Even though I had practiced the pitch countless times, I was terrified. When our turn came, all of a sudden, I just started. Everything was a blur. Words were just spewing out of my mouth, but somehow…I was making sense. Even when they started asking questions, my mind was on autopilot. I was consistently answering questions the minute that the words would leave the judges mouth, and it seemed like nothing could fluster me. When our pitch was finally over, and the judges were left with nothing but smiles on their faces, I knew we had been successful. An hour later, the finalists were announced, and Torus was one of them.
I was overwhelmed by excitement. By becoming a finalist, I officially secured our spot in pitching our business to one of the world’s most renowned entrepreneurs, Mark Cuban. When I made it past my first pitch successfully, I expected to be at ease, but deep down, I was fully aware that the finals would be a whole other ball game.
The morning of the finals, I was consumed by anxiety. Everything I did needed to be perfect. My tie had to be an exact length. My shoes had to be pristine, and not even one hair could be out of place. I was about to present to an entire hall of entrepreneurs from all over the metroplex while being judged by someone who has heard thousands of pitches. When I arrived at the auditorium, I looked out into the audience and saw a sea of suits, dress shirts, and a few T-shirts (undoubtedly college students trying to get a peek at Mark Cuban). After introductions of special guests and messages from sponsors, it was time for the undergraduates to present.
First up was Class Buds, a mobile app designed to connect students in the same classes. The judges were not holding anything back. They were going after all types of issues from scalability to the very reason that the app would be useful. That is when I knew, Torus would be in for a ride. The presenter introduced my company and motioned for me to come out to the stage. As I stood there with the wireless clicker sitting in my sweaty palms, I knew how important the next twenty minutes were going to be, but I knew I would get through it. The presentation went perfectly and even generated some laughs from the crowd, but nothing could sway the anxiety I had as the judges’ questions were lurking around the corner.
Mark Cuban and the judges ripped through our business, looking for anything and everything to scrutinize. If there were questions about our business, I would answer. If there were questions about our technology, Hans and Jai would answer. Everything was going well until they started asking us about our sensors. They were hung up on the fact that we didn’t have a prototype, and we were trying to explain to them that we were still considering numerous types of sensors. We saw no need implementing a prototype when the technology for sensors is already mainstream. The judges were not on the same page. They held the conviction that having a prototype now was an absolute necessity. When I tried explaining to Mark Cuban that the next six months of our plan was to develop the best sensor we could by testing numerous current devices, he shrugged me off. For the next five minutes, I deliberated with him on the projection of our business and its current standing, but to no avail. The judges on stage, unlike the ones from the semi-finals round, simply did not see my vision for the company.
We got off stage, and I felt awful. I knew there was no way that the judges were satisfied with our answers, and I was kicking myself for not preparing more. If I had just learned more of the technology, then we would have been able to convince the judges of our plan. If I had a more solid business connection, then we could have developed a prototype from elsewhere. If I had helped make more of the sensor myself, we could have had something to present to the judges. As the other teams presented, my mind was running through different scenarios of how I could have done more until I remembered a keynote speech that highlighted the nature of entrepreneurship. I realized that taking Torus from a broken concept at a small hackathon all the way to a presentation in front of Mark Cuban was something to be proud about. Not many freshman can claim being able to do that. Torus ended up winning a total of $2500 taking the 3rd place DFW Excellerator Award and the People’s Choice Award in the undergraduate category. Although my team did not end up winning the competition, I was able to gain something much more valuable. I was able to challenge myself in a time of entrepreneurial failure that would have broken most people, but instead, the experience just confirmed my love for this field. I was starting to finally be able to call myself an entrepreneur.
Note: Photos are courtesy of the UT Dallas Office of Research.