In The News

Blackstone LaunchPad Student Entrepreneurs Selected As Finalists in “World’s Largest” Business Plan Competition


From more than 440 applicants, three Blackstone LaunchPad Fellows were selected to participate in the upcoming 2021 Rice Business Plan Competition (RBPC) finals. Big & Mini, from University of Texas at Austin, Ai-Ris, from Texas A&M University, and QBuddy, from Cornell University, will join 51 other student startups from six countries to compete virtually on April 6-9 for more than $1.5 million in cash and prizes.

Created in 2011, RBPC is hosted by Rice Business and Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, the University’s entrepreneurship initiative. During this multi-day event, student founders pitch their companies, receive feedback on their ideas, and network with judges and sponsors. Companies from LaunchPad schools have made it to the finals before, including UC San Diego’s Steeroflex winning second place in an elevator pitch competition in 2020 and UC Irvine Embryologic winning the women’s health and wellness prize in 2019.

Meet the LaunchPad students participating in the upcoming RBPC:

Ai-Ris, Tokunbo “TJ” Falohun, Texas A&M University (Fall 2020 LaunchPad Fellow)

Vision loss due to diabetes is one of the leading causes of preventable blindness in adults worldwide. Ai-Ris provides an ocular diagnostic system, using machine learning and low-cost hardware, to prevent vision loss in vulnerable populations. 

Ai-Ris was formed through a student organization called Sling Health, where students work on interdisciplinary teams to solve clinical problems. TJ and the rest of his team share a motivation to solve medical problems in underserved communities, and the focal point of Ai-Ris is particularly close to TJ’s heart — he has a close family member who suffers from diabetes. 

In addition to the Fall 2020 LaunchPad Fellowship and the upcoming RBPC, Ai-Ris was also accepted into the January 2021 cohort of the National Science Foundation I-Corps program.

Of the lessons TJ has learned through the LaunchPad Fellowship and other entrepreneurial programming, he says, “‘Fail Fast’ has become popular wisdom in the startup world, but I have also learned the value of patience, which comes easier when you are doing something that you love. This is the third startup that I have worked on…It’s important to push for success but it’s even more critical to put ourselves in a position to withstand losses so we can learn and grow as entrepreneurs and individuals.”

Big & Mini,Aditi Merchant, University of Texas at Austin (Summer 2020 LaunchPad Fellow)

Big & Mini is a platform that creates meaningful, one to one connections between college students in need of guidance (Minis) and older adults wanting to connect (Bigs). With over 1,000 active matches from all 50 states and 25 countries, Big & Mini is on its way to achieving its mission of ending loneliness and bridging societal divides.

At the start of the pandemic, Aditi and her cofounders, who had all volunteered at nursing homes in high school, were upset to think of the social isolation seniors were experiencing. They founded Big & Mini to lessen pandemic isolation, but see a future that extends past COVID-19: loneliness has always been a problem, and Big & Mini will continue to make meaningful connections across generations, even if social distancing becomes a thing of the past.

In addition to the RBPC and the Summer 2020 LaunchPad Fellowship, Big & Mini was one of eight semi-finalists selected to pitch at the 2021 LaunchPad Annual Pitch Competition, held virtually this year at Startup Grind.

“LaunchPad has been instrumental in helping us prepare for RBP and all pitch competitions,” Aditi says of her experiences. “One of the most helpful entrepreneurial skills I developed over the course of the fellowship is powerful storytelling. Going into the fellowship, I wasn’t entirely sure how to best convey Big & Mini’s story in a way that resonated… Nina from UT’s LaunchPad… probably heard our pitch 500 times at this point!”

QBuddy, Jordyn Goldzweig, Cornell University (Spring 2021 LaunchPad Fellow)

QBuddy is a mental health platform that hosts virtual get togethers and makes one to one connections to help women over 50 years old feel less lonely. So far, it’s made over 175,000 matches helping people in 100+ countries feel a sense of human connection.

When the pandemic began, Jordyn and her co-founder Sam wanted to do something to help with the increase in loneliness and isolation. As Computer Science majors who had previously co-founded Zing, a startup to help students feel less isolated in their classes, Jordyn and Sam realized they had the tools to take action and founded QBuddy.

In addition to the RBPC and the LaunchPad Fellowship, QBuddy one firstt place at the Cornell Life Changing Labs summer incubator Demo Day and was accepted into Cornell’s eLab accelerator. 

Jordyn says of her experience with LaunchPad, “Our on-campus entrepreneurship center and staff at Cornell have been of tremendous help to us along our journey so far. We are incredibly grateful to be a part of the Spring Launchpad Fellowship which will provide us with mentors and fellow students to give us feedback on our pitch and to ensure that we explain our business as concisely and effectively as we can in the Rice Business Plan Competition.”