From mental health to spikeball and cosmetics, startup founders sought to impress judges with their innovative ideas at a recent pitch competition hosted by The Hub, an entrepreneurial incubator at the University of Toronto Scarborough.
“This year’s pitch competition really showcased innovative solutions to some of the world’s most common challenges,” says Donovan Dill, who leads operations at The Hub. “We are very proud of this year’s cohort, who are now in residence at The Hub.”
Here are some of the entrepreneurs who walked away with cash prizes to help build their budding businesses.
Bash Roundnet — A straightforward spikeball solution
Playing roundnet, a sport commonly known as spikeball, centres on hitting a ball onto a trampoline-like net until the ball touches the ground or the net’s rim. Things get complicated when players hit a pocket — the slightly saggy part of the net next to the rim.
“In other sports the boundaries are clear; in tennis there's a two-inch white line and ping pong has the edges of a table. For spikeball, the boundary is fuzzy,” says Shayne Gryba, who recently finished his PhD in theoretical physics at U of T.
Gryba developed a net with a uniformly bouncy surface and, hence, no pockets. His model can be put together 10 times faster than the traditional version without losing its consistent tension. It also fits into a small backpack, and the rim is outfitted with pieces that make a distinct noise when touched. His startup, Bash Roundnet, is looking for investors while he continues honing the model.
mhapy — A proactive mental health chatbot
Chijindu Ukagwu, a mental health nurse, wants to automate mental health screenings without losing the feeling of conversation patients get from interactions with health-care staff.
He founded mhapy, a startup with a chatbot named Ruby that has open-ended conversations while subtly completing mental health status exams. Over time, Ruby detects a user’s baseline mood and symptoms. If their mental health begins to worsen, the chatbot notifies their support system, be it a friend, family member or mental health professional.
“We are democratizing access to mental health chatbots. With our software, any psychotherapist or mental health organization will be able to get a version of our chatbot and share it with patients,” says Ukagwu, a master’s student at U of T.
mhapy has been training Ruby through more than 2,000 conversations totalling more than 18,000 messages. The company is also working on a feature to connect users with similar symptoms, thus expanding their support network.
Beau Beauty — A smarter way to buy cosmetics
Some cosmetics retailers let customers “try on” makeup using virtual filters, but the team at Beau Beauty hasn’t been impressed with the accuracy of these simple overlays.
“Especially for people of colour, the virtual makeup try-ons are mismatching skin tone and colour,” says Joshua Raphael, a graduate of the bachelor of business administration program.
The team is training an AI to better recognize skin qualities and facial features and use augmented reality to show what products will really look like on the face. Users will be able to try on multiple cosmetics at once, get recommendations and add products straight to their cart.
The potential impacts aren’t skin-deep — the team’s research found one in four product returns are for cosmetics, which end up in landfills.
“There are developing countries where people are living next to piles of makeup returns,” says Kritika Pandey, who graduated with a degree in finance and statistics. “We can make sure people get the right product.”