Originally published March 20, 2015
By Lisa Y. Garibay
UTEP News Service
Two UTEP students are out to prove that napping is beneficial business – and they’ve just received $10,000 to do it.
Mauricio Mercado and Leonardo Orea were named winners of the 2015 Paso Del Norte Venture Competition (PDNVC), beating out 13 other teams on March 7. Their first-place idea is for a concept named Productivity Pod, which is a device designed for cognitively strained professionals that will enable a power napping experience, decreasing users’ fatigue.
As the premier El Paso event for innovation and entrepreneurship, PDNVC supports teams of business, engineering and science students from universities throughout the region along with established start-up companies looking for investment on a separate professional track.
“The PDVNC – a partnership between UTEP’s Mike Loya Center for Innovation and Commerce and El Paso’s Hub of Human Innovation – is a key component for the economic vitality of El Paso and the Paso del Norte tri-state region,” said UTEP College of Engineering Dean Richard Schoephoerster, Ph.D. “We are planting the seeds for the Paso del Norte economy of tomorrow.”
The idea for the Productivity Pod began when Mercado and Orea were serving as interns with The Hub of Human Innovation, the region’s technology incubator.
“The administrative assistant of The Hub recommended that Leo design a sleeping pod wherein she would be able to nap,” said Mercado, a senior majoring in finance. “Given that many people voiced the same issue of sleep deprivation leading to lack of productivity, we decided to participate with the idea in a lean start-up course offered at The Hub at the recommendation of The Hub’s directors.”
Through their market research, the partners discovered fatigue not only impacted health within the workplace, but also significantly affected the bottom line of U.S. industries, which lost $63.2 billion nationwide as a result of decreased productivity. Further proof came from interviewing numerous potential customers whose responses helped evolve the model from a simple yet elegant sleeping enclosure to a beautiful piece of furniture that includes biofeedback sensors and ergonomic mechanisms.
“It is still a work in progress; we better it every day,” Mercado said.
After all of this hard work and having completed the Hub’s Lean Start-Up Program, Shift, the Hub’s CEO encouraged the students to enter the PDNVC. Orea, a master’s student in systems engineering, had previously participated in PDNVC. He pointed out that his model requires a minimum amount of funding while having a huge scalability.
There seemed to be such a niche for the concept that Mercado and Orea put their business plan together in about 30 minutes. Since then, they have spent more than eight months improving it.
“The most difficult part was deciding on the name,” Orea said. Techdoze, Mocksha and Resuscitatepod were all candidates at one point. Through this process, the two students learned the value of staying lean and explicit, an approach that also helped them polish their pitch to deliver the necessary details in a very short amount of time.
“We had an amazing team that complemented business, engineering and best-in-class advising,” Orea said. “Yet the most powerful asset of our team was a common desire to create something special and our obsession with doing a great job.”
Bob Cook, a seasoned recruiter who heads his own economic development strategic consultancy, served as a mentor to Mercado and Orea.
“(Bob Cook) accompanied us every step of the way and we attribute our success to his experienced advice and the constant contacts he has shared with us,” Mercado said, adding that The Hub’s team also helped significantly with the business planning process.
Jenni Clark and Gary Williams of UTEP’s Center for Research Entrepreneurship and Innovative Enterprises (CREIE) assisted with the presentation aspects of the venture.
Mercado and Orea are now preparing to tackle the 2015 Global Venture Labs Investment Competition, a globally inclusive event that describes itself as the “Super Bowl of Investment Competitions,” this May at the AT&T Conference Center in Austin, Texas. They will have the help of UTEP’s Mike Loya Center for Innovation and Commerce every step of the way.
“The center is going to utilize its network of experts to set up coaching sessions for the team so that they can be exposed to the mechanics of the competition and the pressure that it represents,” said the center’s coordinator, Aaron Cervantes. “And last but not least, the center will be taking them to the competition in order to provide last-minute coaching before and during the competition.”
Additionally, the team has access to the expertise of the center’s Innovator in Residence, Mark Frazer, vice president of new health care innovation incubator RedSky.
While they finish their respective degrees and go forward with academic and professional pursuits, Mercado and Orea plan on continuing their venture beyond these competitive arenas. They are currently in the process of forming a company and establishing manufacturing partners to deliver a working model as well as continuing customer-centric market research efforts by contacting businesses and wellness partners in the El Paso-Juárez region. They also have applied for the accelerator program at RedSky.
“Winning PDNVC is a great milestone in our professional careers,” Orea said. “For me, it represents an opportunity to employ what I have learned in school into something that I enjoy, and make something meaningful.”
Mercado also is grateful to his home institution for making such an opportunity possible.
“UTEP is a university that provides many opportunities to hone and further one’s skills through an extensive support system in professors and career development programs,” he said.
Six other teams were recognized during the finals, including four from UTEP: CaTera, with their biotechnology company focusing on novel therapeutic treatments for late-stage cancer; LabQuick, a versatile, hybrid microfluidic platform for rapid and sensitive global infectious disease diagnostics; Water Distillation Technologies, a solar energy-based system to produce clean water; and Albatross, a lightweight and portable chemical sensor used to detect ordnance.
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