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'Big Idea' finalists fine-tune business ideas -- from glowing pillows to Peruvian clothes

For Josh Groleau '11, his "big idea" came to him while he was in high school, taking apart a snowmobile with his dad.

He thought the snowmobile's continuously variable transmission (CVT), which automatically shifts through an infinite number of gears, could be applied to other vehicles -- like his bike.

"With the green movement that's taking hold of the country, bike companies definitely want to jump on ideas that make it easier for people to get into biking," said Groleau, an engineering major. His idea would do just that for novice bikers.

Groleau's CentriPEDAL Cycle Co. is one of 12 undergraduate student ideas chosen as finalists in "The Big Idea" competition.

Sponsored by Entrepreneurship@Cornell, the finale of the competition will be 4-6 p.m. Friday, April 17, in the Statler ballroom, where finalists will present three-minute pitches. Winners will be chosen based on judges' scores and audience votes.

The competition, in its second year, offers a $2,500 prize for first place, $1,000 for second place and $500 for third. This year, there are two tracks to the competition -- business enterprise and social enterprise. Both tracks will have three winners.

While Groleau's big idea focuses on being active, another team's product is made for sleepers.

Four students invented the "Wake Well" pillow idea as a way to avoid the jolt of an alarm clock or cell phone in the morning, said team member Francois van Vliet '09.

Their pillow includes organic light-emitting diode fabric, which lights up to simulate the sun's rays when it's time to get up; a port to attach an MP3 player to play a favorite wake-up tune; and four coin-sized vibrating pads to go off with progressive intensity until you're up and about.

If all goes well, the team -- which also includes Vincent Wong '09, Anne Aubry '10 and George Han '10 -- wants to create a prototype, then contact professor James Maas to see if he would try the product in his Cornell sleep lab. All four members of the Wake Well team are mechanical/aerospace engineering majors.

The new social enterprise track, for business ideas that benefit society, offers such ideas as premium custom-made clothing for women that contributes to the economic development of rural villages in Peru. Conceived by Constanza Ontaneda '09 and Angeline Stuma's '09, the clothing line features fabrics and detailing work done by Peruvian artisans, tailors, seamstresses and textile makers.

"Growing up in Peru, I always saw all of this poverty and felt that something was wrong," said Ontaneda, a fiber science and apparel design major.

Stuma, an applied economics and management major, made the perfect business partner.

Their business has already been awarded $10,000 in a national competition "100 Projects for Peace" through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the two social entrepreneurs also have joined eLab, the Student Agencies and Entrepreneurship@Cornell business accelerator for undergraduates.

Another social entrepreneurship idea stems from Liberia, the birthplace of Jefferson King '09. His Youth Overcoming Underdevelopment Nationally and Globally (YOUNG) is a yearly business competition to help youth in Liberia develop solutions to the nation's problems.

"We want to inspire young people to dream, to develop a business plan and start their businesses," said King, an engineering major.

Kathy Hovis is a writer and editor for Entrepreneurship@Cornell.

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