Team Speak2 Systems makes their winning presentation at the Cornell Hospitality Business Plan Competition March 16 in Statler Auditorium. At left, Ori Belson ’19; at right, Timothy Buttigieg ’19.

Student hospitality startups win $37.5K at competition

When Ori Belson ’19, a mechanical engineering major taking pre-med classes, shadowed doctors in intensive care units, he saw a problem.

“Patients who had tubes placed in the trachea through the mouth, yet were awake and aware, wanted to communicate but were struggling to do so,” he said. “After talking to doctors and patients about the problem, it became clear that a better solution was needed.”

The solution he developed with Timothy Buttigieg ’19, a hotel administration major, took the $25,000 top prize at the ninth annual Cornell Hospitality Business Plan Competition. The event was March 16 in Statler Auditorium, in conjunction with Hotel Ezra Cornell.

The winning team, Speak2 Systems, celebrates with judges and the dean after the Cornell Hospitality Business Plan Competition March 16. From left, Kate Walsh, MPS ’90, dean of the School of Hotel Administration; winner Ori Belson ’19; Sandy Solmon, judge and sponsor; Charles DesLauriers, MPS ’78, judge and sponsor; Ellen Yui, judge and SHA entrepreneur in residence; and winner Timothy Buttigieg ’19.

Their company, Speak2 Systems, hopes to improve the well-being and quality of life of intubated patients, who often become stressed and frustrated at being unable to speak. Speak2’s technology includes two finger sensors – one signaling yes, the other no – plus a computer screen and headset or speaker through which the patient is asked a series of yes-or-no questions that helps them communicate information such as whether and where they have pain.

The competition, a program of the Leland C. and Mary M. Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship, begins at the start of the academic year when students form teams and develop executive summaries for their business plans. Each team must include at least one student enrolled in the School of Hotel Administration. The field is narrowed down to 10 semifinalist teams, who submit a full business plan. Five teams from that group were chosen to go to the finals.

“The competition provides students with a unique opportunity to emulate the behaviors and thinking of successful entrepreneurs,” said Neil Tarallo, the Pillsbury Institute’s senior director. “Students participating in the competition gain firsthand knowledge of how elements of their hospitality education come together to create functioning service-based organizations.

“The competition is just one of the programs offered by the Pillsbury Institute teaching students nonlinear problem-solving methodologies, opportunity identification, and innovation with constrained resources,” Tarallo said.

Belson said the competition helped them think about the company in the long term.

“This was very beneficial because it helped teach us about the importance of understanding the market, the go-to-market strategy, the financials and other components that must be thought about when forming a business,” he said.

The most challenging aspect of the competition was figuring out how to communicate the business, Belson said.

“Since we have been working on it for quite some time, we struggle with making all of our explanations and ideas concise,” he said. “However, with the help of faculty and advisers, we were able to revise our drafts in order to make everything more clear.”

The team began work on Speak2 Systems more than a year ago and has hit several milestones. Speak2 is participating in Cornell’s Kessler Fellows Program, an entrepreneurship program in the College of Engineering. They have a provisional patent, have formed a C corporation and will use the prize money for legal fees, clinical trial fees and research and development, Belson said.

In second place, winning $7,500, was BoutiquePlus+, a hospitality digital marketing management company that helps Chinese boutique and lifestyle hotels to become better known online. The team manages social media, builds online presences, fosters customer relationship management and evaluates revenue-management solutions related to social media. Team members are hotel administration majors Xiaokun Qin ’19 and Yibing Sun ’19, Yennie Handika, MMH ’19, and Mengmeng Wang, MMH ’19.

Taking third place and $5,000 was Moroccan Youth Social Entrepreneurship Center, a co-working and accommodation space designed for young entrepreneurs. It will offer young entrepreneurs in Morocco a place to work and live as they start their businesses. The founders are Ghali Jorio ’21, a hotel administration major, and Michael Zhang, MBA ’20.

Media Contact

Rebecca Valli