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Four teams of Pitt Business Students Win Big at Randall Family Big Idea Competition

Four teams of students from the University of Pittsburgh’s College of Business Administration earned top recognition and cash prizes in the 2016 Randall Family Big Idea Competition.Four teams of students from the University of Pittsburgh’s College of Business Administration earned top recognition and cash prizes in the 2016 Randall Family Big Idea Competition.

Since its inception in 2009, the Randall Family Big Idea Competition has annually awarded $100,000 in cash prizes to students from across the University of Pittsburgh at all experience levels, from freshmen to postdocs, with a grand prize of $25,000. It is one of the region’s largest student startup pitch competitions.

This year, students from 14 of the 16 schools at the University of Pittsburgh participated. There were 250 students across 75 teams when the competition began in February 2016. Fifty-five teams advanced to the semifinal round, and the final 36 teams each produced a two-minute pitch video. The winners were announced at the Awards Showcase.  Four fourth place winners received $2,000 each, four third place winners received $5,000 each, three second place winners received $15,000 each, and the grand prize winner, POD, received $25,000.

Local Oceans

Alexis Tshudy, a Pitt Business marketing major focused on predictive analytics, specifically marketing analytics, was part of the Local Oceans team, which placed second in the competition, winning a cash prize of $15,000. Tshudy worked with engineering students Mady Buntin, Chris Ference, and Zach Miller.

Local Oceans is a technology for indoor recirculating aquaculture systems, which help eliminate chemicals in the water which cause unwelcome flavors in farmed fish.

“My contributions to this team were to help in creating the pitch presentation and forming some of the business strategies that allowed my team to be successful,” Tshudy says.

Opportunities like the Big Idea Competition, he says, allow for cross-functional collaboration as well as mentorship and connections to investors, which are key for student innovation success at Pitt.

“I’m very passionate about the opportunities that exist for students, like the Randall Family Big Idea Competition. One of my favorite parts was having the opportunity to interact with and combine my business acumen and skills with an amazing technology created at the Swanson School of Engineering,” Tshudy says.


Jennifer Sommer, a marketing major at Pitt Business, and Simi co-founders Akhil Aniff and Brian Amaratunga, both students in the Pitt Swanson School of Engineering, earned second place and $15,000 in prize money for Simi, a mobile application that connects college students to the best academic resources based on the unique needs of each student.

Sommer says she met Aniff and Amaratunga in February 2015, when they were all facing a similar problem: struggling in a class and searching for help.

“The idea was somewhat different at the time but it has evolved into a solution that makes the most sense for students and universities,” Sommer says.

Sommer says the team noticed a disconnect between office hours, which are usually from 9:00 a.m. -5:00 p.m. on weekdays, and students’ study time, which tends to be in the evenings and on weekends. Simi provides a way for students to connect to a teaching assistant or tutor for a specific class, a classmate looking to study together, or an online forum at a time that works best for both parties.

“When Simi was moving along well, it made sense for us to enter the competition. While I think the prize money brings a lot of people in, the competition itself is really such a great learning experience. Our team knew that we would get something valuable afterwards, no matter what,” Sommer says.

The team plans to use the prize money to help the company grow, which includes covering the costs of infrastructure, development, and marketing. The team is working with Thrill Mill, a Pittsburgh start-up accelerator, to develop Simi and increase its customer and user base. 

My Family Garden

My Family Garden placed third in the competition, winning a cash prize of $5,000. Pitt Business students Kaylin Fox, Erin DiCerbo, Brittney Lojas, and Ben Osmond comprised the team.

The company creates a “Care Capsule” which combines the cremated remains of a loved one or pet with plant seeds.

“Our goal is to help people find that peace of mind after a loved one has been lost. We want to give families something to hold onto and give them the ability to continue to nurture their loved ones. What sets us apart from other options after the cremation process is that we make the passing stage of the life cycle into new life,” Fox says.

Rhonda Schuldt, president of The Synergos Group LLC and an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Pitt Business, mentored the team.

“Rhonda was the best mentor we could have asked for. She knew what she was doing and always had great advice. Her years of experience really helped us develop an amazing business plan,” Fox said.

The team plans to use the prize money to bring their idea to the Blast Furnace program, a student accelerator created by the University of Pittsburgh’s Innovation Institute.

“We are going to take our big idea and make it bigger,” Fox says.


Pitt Business students Sophia Tan and Drew Brumbaugh worked with Ray Funahashi from the School of Medicine and Arun Balaraman from the Swanson School of Engineering on their idea for Labkind, a platform for eliminating waste and enhancing collaboration in laboratories. The team earned fourth place and a cash prize of $2,000.

In January 2016, the team placed second in the Startup PittBlitz competition, also sponsored by the Pitt Innovation Institute.

A team of students from the Katz Graduate School of Business placed fourth in the competition, winning a cash prize of $2,000.

The Randall Family Big Idea Competition is only one example of the range of courses, programs, student organizations, dedicated faculty, and other resources that exist for Pitt Business students with entrepreneurial aspirations. View the Pitt Business entrepreneurship website.