Teen Entrepreneurs Impress Judges In ‘Sink or Swim’ Competition

Team Stylish Safety of Manchester High School (in alphabetical order: Madison Cubbison, Mackenzie Davis, Katelynn Grupposo, and Layla Petillon) earned $3,000 as the top prize winner in the Sink or Swim competition. Their creation was jewelry that could contact authorities in an emergency. (Photo by Stephanie Faughnan)

  TOMS RIVER – Local teens took a deep dive into showcasing their entrepreneurial skills at Ocean County College’s third annual “Sink or Swim” competition. Hosted by the college’s Entrepreneur Club, participants presented and sold their innovative ideas to a panel of judges inspired by the hit TV show “Shark Tank.”

  As the event’s master of ceremonies, Professor Chris D. Bottomley introduced the aspiring business moguls as they hit the center stage to demonstrate their design skills and creativity. The competitors also presented business plans as they advocated for funding and support of their projects.

Natalie Raspciewicz and Alexa Sousa of Toms River High School North won second place for their idea of lockets that concealed test strips to determine if a drink has been spiked. (Photo by Stephanie Faughnan)

  A total of nine teams participated in the competition, which included students from Jackson Memorial High School, Manchester Township High School, Point Pleasant High School, and Toms River High School North. Each brought their own unique ideas and approaches to the table.

  Several projects focused on using mobile apps or online platforms to support products related to health, well-being, and safety. Others aimed to address fashion-related issues, targeting either individuals in need or catering to those with significant disposable income.

  After pitching their innovative designs, students faced the added pressure of quickly answering tough questions posed by four judges sitting in the front row. The powerhouse panel of judges featured Jim Mahlmann, the Director of Net Centra; Lori Pepenella, the CEO of the Southern Ocean Chamber of Commerce; Ocean County College Law Professor and community leader Mark J. Mutter; and Katie Calabrese, the Director of Membership & Education at the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship.

  Monetary awards to the teams of winners came courtesy of the Ocean County College Foundation.

  In the end, one of the Manchester High School teams earned $3,000 as the top prize winner in the Sink or Swim competition. Team Stylish Safety members Madison Cubbison, Mackenzie Davis, Katelynn Grupposo, and Layla Petillon said their product design would help reduce the number of people who felt unsafe.

  “Our company is a jewelry brand with a lot more to it,” shared the team members. “We are looking for $150,000 in exchange for 10 percent equity of our company’s profits.”

  The Stylish Safety Team said they planned to initially roll out rings, earrings, and hairpins that would come equipped with a discreet button mechanism. With a push of a button, users would have the ability to connect with to Stylish Safety app to alert designated authorities.

  An added plus to the design would be the use of eco-friendly materials. The developers intend to work with manufacturers that recycle each metal and plastic used in their jewelry.

  The judges wanted to know if there was really a need for the product and how consumers would activate it when they began using it.

  The team emphasized the safety concerns faced by women, citing alarming statistics about sex trafficking, abductions, and kidnappings. Their innovative product provided safety features and was fashionable, making it an attractive option for their target market.

Team Huggle from Manchester High School secured third place and a $1,000 prize for their invention of a body pillow that hugged you back. (Photo by Stephanie Faughnan)

  Natalie Raspciewicz and Alexa Sousa of Toms River High School North captured the $2,000 second-place award in the Sink or Swim competition. Dubbed Team Locked and Secured, Natalie and Alexa also focused on safety concerns.

  “Oftentimes, as girls, we are told to always watch our backs and make sure to check what’s behind us,” shared Natalie. “But we easily forget about what’s in front of us via our drinks.”

  Team Locked and Secure said they came up with an idea that would allow users to conceal a test strip to determine whether someone had spiked their drinks. A locket would discreetly hide two test strips to doubly ensure the results were accurate.

  As Alexa presented the prototype on stage, she told the judges they were looking for $100,000 in funding.

  Once again, the judges sought answers to some questions that immediately struck them. Mutter suggested their product might require FDA approval; Pepenella pointed out the company could be held accountable if the results yielded false negatives.

  “We are planning on running multiple trials before we go to market,” Alexa said. “We will also keep statistics and make sure the product works accurately.”

  Team Huggle from Manchester High School secured third place and a $1,000 prize for their efforts. Their product was designed to help people who would benefit from getting a good hug – rather than giving one.

Lori Pepenella, Mark Mutter, Jim Mahlmann and Katie Calabrese judged the students. (Photo by Stephanie Faughnan)

  The Huggle body pillow features Velcro around each of its tips that fasten to the user’s body.

  “We started this company to help solve problems such as people not being relaxed or feeling comfortable when sleeping,” shared Matthew Perez, Huggle CEO. “The arms of the pillow provide pressure to the body similar to a weighted blanket.”

  After their pitch, Mahlmann asked Team Huggle if they knew a similar product was already on the market. The team said existing body pillows served as their inspiration but didn’t have the same effect as they didn’t focus on hugging the user.

  Team members also addressed using disclaimers to ensure the product didn’t adversely impact younger children.

  “I want to commend your thoughts on the disclaimers,” said Calabrese. “They do make newborn products with Velcro on them, and it’s on the parents to ensure that it’s safe for the child.”

Stylish Safety of Manchester High School was the winner. (Photo by Stephanie Faughnan)

  Despite not reaching the top three, Point Pleasant High School’s Team Pop Punk Rock Café still had a standout performer. Joe Mazzaro took the stage with a guitar in hand and delivered a compelling pitch for his team’s concept of a coffee café with a rock theme. His impressive presentation earned him the title of Most Valuable Player and the reward of three free college credits at Ocean County College.

  Bottomley delivered the event’s final pitch, highlighting the merits of Ocean County College as a stepping stone for those embarking on post-secondary education. Supporting statistics reveal that a significant number of the college’s graduates successfully complete their two-year degrees and advance to prestigious four-year institutions such as Kean, Rutgers, and Stockton.

  The program organizers emphasized that every future commences with an idea that possesses the potential to transform the world.

  “Innovation is something we take very seriously here,” summed up Dr. Jon Larson, President of Ocean County College. “It’s right in our college mission statement – to be the boldest, most innovative, and entrepreneurial student-centered college in the nation.”

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Stephanie A. Faughnan is an award-winning journalist associated with Micromedia Publications/Jersey Shore Online and the director of Writefully Inspired. Recognized with two Excellence in Journalism awards by the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists, Stephanie's passion lies in using the power of words to effect positive change. Her achievements include a first-place award in the Best News Series Print category for the impactful piece, "The Plight Of Residents Displaced By Government Land Purchase," and a second-place honor for the Best Arts and Entertainment Coverage category, specifically for "Albert Music Hall Delivers Exciting Line-Up For 25th Anniversary Show." Stephanie can be contacted by email at stephanienjreporter@gmail.com.