Students show off startup ideas at UMD

By Nathan Stiff

Student entrepreneurs showed off a wide array of products, from apps to lipstick, at the Startup Shell Venture Expo May 9.

The Startup Shell is a space on campus where University of Maryland students develop ideas and create startup businesses. At the Venture Expo, 16 groups presented their work, including UMD hackathons Bitcamp and Technica; Break Box, a service that lets people smash glass bottles to relieve stress; and Solr Tech, a company that makes solar-powered phone chargers that fit on patio umbrellas. Startup Shell executive director Harrison Linowes, a senior computer science major, said the event was an opportunity for the founders to network with and pitch their products to students, faculty and other entrepreneurs.

Visitors could talk to founders, learn about projects and vote on their favorite venture. The Startup Shell awarded the winner of the vote, LeaseLine, $500 to further develop their project. LeaseLine is a website for students to sublease their apartments. According to Aaron Nadler, who founded the company with his brother Daryl, the site is fully functional and already has about 100 users.

Nadler, a senior finance and supply chain major, said that unlike Facebook, Craigslist or other online marketplaces, LeaseLine is designed specifically for student apartment subleasing and features a secure, built-in payment processing service. He said the Startup Shell has helped him connect with coders and other entrepreneurs to build the service.

“Being a startup, you think you have all the ideas but you really don’t,” Nadler said. “And there’s other people that can do it better, and you can find those people in Startup Shell.”

Jacques Marais, a founder of a group called Thrive, also said ideas from other members of the Startup Shell had helped him launch his business. Thrive makes low-maintenance houseplants for homes and offices. According to Marais, studies show that keeping plants indoors brings a range of psychological benefits, including improved memory and decision-making.

Marais said Thrive’s goal is to develop an affordable moss green wall that only needs watering once every three months. He said when he was starting out and needed funds, people at the Startup Shell helped him develop his business plan.

“An individual from Startup Shell said to me, ‘Jacques, why don’t you sell the product before it exists?’” Marais said. “I thought it was impossible! However, they explained to me that this is a strategy that’s used by businesses … and that’s what we did, and we raised the money within about two weeks.”

Marais said he got the idea for Thrive from talking to people at Farmatronix, another Startup Shell venture.

Farmatronix makes an automated greenhouse system that grows plants and detects crop diseases. Farmatronix founder Manan Bhalodia, a senior computer science major, said that as well as networking opportunities, the Startup Shell provides a useful place to work on his product.

“When you’re in your dorm or when you’re in your apartment it’s super distracting, so we’ve pulled a lot of all-nighters here,” Bhalodia said.

Isha Kamara, a senior African American studies major, founded Iced Out Cosmetics. Kamara said her brand targets women of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with insecurities.

“I saw a problem in the beauty industry. I see that they only target certain types of people,” Kamara said.

Kamara said she founded Iced Out Cosmetics in December and joined the Startup Shell in March.

“Some of the directors have been very welcoming,” Kamara said. “But I find that it’s kind of hard to fit in spaces like this when you’re a minority student. I’m a woman and I’m a woman of color so it’s kind of hard to fit in spaces that are very male dominated … It’s like you have to search yourself more and have more confidence than everybody else in the room just to stand out.”

Bharath Gurumurthy, a civil engineering graduate student, said he was working on his own startup and came to learn more about the ventures at the Shell.

“I saw that there were a lot of startups here right now. I just wanted to talk to everybody up here,” Gurumurthy said.

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