Student entrepreneurs at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater have invented a product they say could revolutionize the retail industry.
They're not the only ones convinced. Judges at the 2012 BizStarts Collegiate Business Plan Competition were so impressed that they awarded Joe Scanlin and Ryan Boyd first place and $5,000.
Their company is Scanalytics, and their invention is a pressure-sensitive mat connected to software that measures customers' attention.
"If someone's in a computer store, it will time how long a customer stands in front of a particular computer," Scanlin said. "After a couple of minutes, it can alert store employees to send a staff member over to assist or answer questions."
For store owners who wonder which products draw the most customers, this device could be a game-changer.
"It provides an unbiased report of consumer behavior," Boyd said. "The software creates a report on how long someone spends at a location and at what time of day, essentially detailing how shoppers react to products."
At the April 26 BizStarts event, Scanlin and Boyd gave judges tangible proof their invention works by using it at the competition.
Placing their prototype in front of vending machines at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, they detailed the day's hungry patrons - how many people bought snacks and how long they waited.
It was a bold and convincing demonstration, netting a solid vote of confidence from other entrepreneurs.
Scanalytics will market its products to trade shows first.
"Sports venues, airports, theme parks, museums, banks and fast food restaurants could be potential clients," Boyd said. "We're continuing to look at revenue models and existing competition."
Much of their research happened at the Innovation Center at Whitewater University Technology Park, a business incubator on the city's east side, where students are given office space and access to faculty mentors.
The program, called Launch Pad, celebrated its first anniversary May 5 and gives students an immersive experience in entrepreneurship.
"Our mentors inspired us to be creative, but at the same time gave us honest and straightforward advice," Scanlin said.
"There's no magical gap between learning at the university and working in the business world," said Jeff Vanevenhoven, Launch Pad co-director and assistant professor of management at UW-Whitewater. "These students are running real companies and dealing with all the issues entrepreneurs face."
That includes seeking outside investment to mass produce a product. The BizStarts win was a small victory for Scanlin and Boyd, and their next stop is the Governor's Business Plan Competition. More than 350 submissions were sent in by the state's top entrepreneurs. Scanalytics is among the 23 semi-finalists. The top 12 will compete June 5-6 in the final round.
In the meantime, the duo will continue to hone their industry skills by helping other people's businesses. Boyd and Scanlin, both from Waunakee, work at UW-Whitewater's Center for Innovation and Business Development. Boyd works with established businesses to achieve their market potential. Scanlin helps inventors develop their ideas.
"You can come up with a solution to a problem, but it has to be large enough to have a customer base and important enough that people are willing to pay for it," Scanlin said.
On May 12, the student entrepreneurs will receive bachelor's in business administration degrees at the spring commencement ceremony.
Third place winners in the BizStarts competition were UW-Whitewater students Karl Rutzen and Stephanie Patrick. Their company, Virtual Science and Safety, created a laboratory simulation program aimed at reducing accidents at university and private science labs.