Drone to jewelry makers pitch business plans

Four businesses led by LSU students — ranging from a company that uses drones for monitoring systems to one that uses team-building techniques to help people stick with exercise programs — went head-to-head Friday for a share of a $23,500 cash prize.

Hospitality & Senior Care Training Institute, founded by Denise Smith, a doctoral student in human resources and workforce development, was the big winner in the third annual LSU Student Incubator Venture Challenge.

It is a “Shark Tank”-type competition, where the student companies pitched their plans to a panel of local business leaders. Fourteen of the 31 businesses in the LSU Student Incubator submitted business plans for consideration in the competition. Four finalists pitched their businesses in the event at the LSU Union.

Smith’s business, which provides short-term training and workforce development courses for the hospitality, school nutrition and senior care industry, took home a check for $15,000. HSC already has partnerships with the Belle of Baton Rouge casino, the Louisiana Nursing Home Association and some local restaurants.

“We provide short-term, skills-based training,” said Smith, a native of Hammond who moved to Baton Rouge from Georgia in December 2012. “This prize will allow us to offer more classes and hire more instructors.”

E T C H Studio, which makes laser-cut jewelry, won $3,500 and an additional $1,000 prize voted on by attendees. The laser-cut jewelry business was started by Zoe Ganch and Mallory Estopinal, two fourth-year architecture students, as a bridge between fast fashion and designer jewelry. The company got its start when Estopinal made a laser-cut necklace as a birthday gift for Ganch.

E T C H uses Instagram as a way of selling and promoting Estopinal and Ganch’s designs. “We launched our Instagram page in January with 300 followers, and we have almost 1,800 today,” Ganch said. “We sell 85 percent of what we post on Instagram.”

Foundations Family Fitness took home $3,000. The business, founded by Andrea Roberts, uses team-building techniques to help people stick with exercise programs.

“The average person is intimidated by exercise,” said Roberts, a Baton Rouge resident who recently earned a master’s degree in sports medicine. “We use a community setting to introduce members to each other, so they feel like they know the people they exercise with and don’t feel intimidated.”

Environmental Robotics Institute was awarded $2,000. The business started by Charles Malveaux uses drones and sensors to provide real-time monitoring of environmental and biological systems.

“We’re on the verge of a robotics revolution,” said Malveaux, a Baton Rouge resident who is a doctoral student in engineering. Malveaux is applying for grants from the Gulf of Mexico Foundation to use his drones to monitor oil spills.

K.T. Valsaraj, LSU’s vice chancellor of research and economic development, said the LSU Student Incubator was launched in September 2010. Since then, 23 businesses have graduated from the center and all but one company has remained in the state.

“We’ve already gained international attention,” he said. “This is a showcase for us.”