As the members of the UNH contingent representing student-founded company HydroPhos Solutions settled in for the Pitch Slam portion of last weekend’s national E-Fest competition at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, Minnesota – brief teasers of the full business pitch presentations ahead over the coming days – they assumed they’d simply be getting a sneak preview of what the other teams had up their sleeves.
What they got instead was a wake-up call.
“After watching the 90-second pitches from the other teams, we all realized how good the competition was. We took a hard look in the mirror and at HydroPhos Solution’s 15-minute presentation and concluded it was only average and would not stand out, despite being a great idea,” says Ian Grant, executive director of the Peter T. Paul Entrepreneurship Center (ECenter), which has mentored the student company.
Consider the call answered.
It took a complete reimagining of their approach while burning a lot of midnight oil, but the UNH team worked through the night to improve its presentation and ultimately walked away as national champions, taking first place in the event and the $50,000 prize that comes with it, along with the Global Impact Award and an additional $10,000 for that recognition.
The UNH team comprised of Paul College of Business and Economics students Daisy Burns’24, Jason Plant ’23, Katie Remeis ’23, Matthew Oriente ’23 and Derek Long ’23 – all co-founders of HydroPhos Solutions – beat out schools such as Cornell, Wake Forest, WPI and Alabama to earn the top spot, the highest finish ever for a UNH team (the university has placed a team in the top 25 in five of the six years that E-Fest has been held, with the previous highest finish being second place overall by SmartWheel in 2019.)
“I’ve never been more proud of a team’s effort,” says Grant. “The idea and work they put in was all theirs, and the energy and knowledge were contagious. We overhauled the pitch less than 18 hours before presenting – no one does that. But they recalibrated, learned and presented like they had been doing this specific pitch for weeks.”
The E-Fest competition invites 25 undergraduate student teams whose business pitches have been selected out of a pool of nearly 100 submissions, representing more than 60 colleges and universities nationwide, to compete in a three-day final event that culminates with The Schulze Entrepreneurship Challenge (the entire event is funded by Best Buy founder Richard Schulze).
After hearing the 90-second pitches from several competitors, the UNH group recognized its own performance would need some last-minute polish and immediately got to work. The team strategized for two hours on Friday afternoon and re-drafted the entire presentation that night – beginning after the mixed-team challenge ended at 10 p.m.
Grant reviewed the new proposal and commented around 2 a.m., and the team met for breakfast to finalize plans at about 6 a.m. The presentation was formally submitted at 7:30 a.m.
“The mantra of the team was to go big and bold, and it would either result in a significant crash-and-burn or help us stand out in a tough field,” Grant says.
HydroPhos Solutions is a service company that addresses eutrophication and phosphorus depletion. They utilize phosphorus filtration technology to extract phosphorus from wastewater treatment plants, then resell the phosphorus to fertilizer companies, recycling the nutrients and extending the lifespan of the global food supply.
The student-founded company has received some acclaim on its own campus – it received “Most Impact Potential” recognition at UNH’s own sustainability focused Social Venture Innovation Challenge in 2020 – but the E-Fest victory opens many new doors, including attracting the interest of potential investors.
“This has been a fantastic experience and an all-time high in our journey as startup founders," Plant says. "HydroPhos Solutions has brought me the best personal and professional experiences of my entire life. I cannot wait to see what lies around the corner, and to use the resources and connections we have made at E-Fest to build a company that changes the world.”
Says Grant: "After the win an entrepreneur and investor sought out the team and me and outlined his interest in investing once they were ready. In this case, the national recognition could bring not just funding, but experts who will be able to provide advice, introductions and maybe even join the team to help with the launch.”
It also positively reflects UNH’s commitment to providing students the knowledge and tools necessary to pursue success in the business world.
“This victory is for all of UNH and the entrepreneurial culture in many corners on campus. It is not the ECenter’s alone,” Grant says. “Consistent success of our students on the national stage against better-known entrepreneurial universities, in addition to our award-winning, high-impact experiential programs, is a golden opportunity to differentiate UNH and attract even more impressive students.”