$50,000 in Prize Money Awarded at SHA’s Poyiadjis Hospitality Innovation Competition
Inaugural contest recognized three teams for innovative solutions to real-world problems faced by the hospitality industry
Talk about dedication: two students studying abroad this semester in Sydney, Australia, woke up at 3 am (their time) last Friday to pitch their idea of how to improve the lives of healthcare workers for last week’s inaugural $50K Poyiadjis Hospitality Innovation Competition. And their commitment paid off: their team, Astra Wellbeing, took home the grand prize of $25,000.
“I was really excited and happy, we put in a lot of hours,” said the team’s in-person representative Johar Singh (Questrom’24), who Zoomed in his teammates Taha Moukara (Questrom’24) and Josh Bruehwiler (Questrom’24) for the presentation.
The trio’s start-up is an SMS-based employee recognition platform (SaaS) that sends daily “kudos” messages from patients or coworkers directly to healthcare workers’ cell phones. While Astra Wellbeing was designed to recognize overworked front-line medical workers, Singh imagines that one day the business could be expanded to hotels, restaurants, and elderly care facilities. “There are so many people who are burnt out who would benefit from a little appreciation,” he said.
In total, the competition awarded $50,000 total across three student teams who successfully designed an innovative solution to a real-world challenge faced by the hospitality industry: $25,000 to Astra Wellbeing; $15,000 to Popple, an app designed to curate events for college-aged people, making it easier for them to make friends; and $10,000 to Aiding Generations, a proposed business that wants to help underserved teens find jobs in the rapidly growing and understaffed senior housing and care industry by providing hands-on work experience and mentoring. The two other finalists were Next Generation Training, a platform that aims to help parents book on-demand training sessions for their kids with collegiate athletes, and Locatesy, a website and app that delivers a list of “must-dos” for first-time travelers to given cities.
The competition was sponsored by Roys and Donna Poyiadjis, parents of an SHA junior. Roys Poyiadjis is founder of Platinum Capital Partners, Inc., a holding company for the Poyiadjis Family Office, which invests in technology, private equity, and real estate, among other opportunities. The final round of the competition took place as part of SHA’s annual Hospitality Leadership Summit, held Friday, March 24, at Hotel Commonwealth.
The event was open to teams of three to five BU students from any school or college, as well as recent alums. A total of 37 teams entered the competition six weeks ago. Teams could apply with just an idea and, if selected, were then paired with advisors and mentors to refine their ideas as they moved toward the finals.
Kaushik Vardharajan, an associate professor of the practice and director of the innovation and entrepreneurship program at SHA, said the school decided to open the competition to students across BU since the world’s problems benefit from multidisciplinary teams working together. “At BU, you have this amazing talent and knowledge base across the different schools, and so the ability to work together to solve problems is very powerful,” he said.
In the initial two rounds of the competition, applications were reviewed by a team of BU professors, alumni, and members of the BUild Lab IDG Capital Student Innovation Center, who cosponsored the event.
The finalists then made their pitches in front of a panel of judges that included Siobhan Dullea (CAS’91), the newly named executive director of Innovate@BU; David Edwards, whose company Sensory Cloud invented FEND, an airway hygiene mist that helps a person’s airways capture and eliminate airborne contaminants before they reach the lungs; Sloan Rudberg, an associate partner at McKinsey & Company’s travel, logistics, and infrastructure arm; and Deborah Torres, founder and CEO of Atlas Monroe, the world’s largest vegan fried chick’n manufacturer.
Dullea, who is also the former president and CEO of MassChallenge, a nonprofit global network for innovators working to find solutions to large-scale problems, said the judges were impressed by Astra Wellbeing’s approach to solving an important problem: employee mental health. “They [showed] a strong proof of concept…and have a clear path to applying their product to the hospitality sector,” she said.
Astra Wellbeing’s members found out about the competition through the BUild Lab, and are also in the semifinals for Innovate@BU’s New Venture Competition. They plan to use the prize money to launch pilot programs at other hospitals to continue testing; they’re also working with the chief medical officer at Microsoft to develop AI solutions to further improve the platform’s functionality.
“Our mission is to foster a culture for all hospitality workers, no matter their role or sector, to feel appreciative, motivated, and valued,” Singh said in front of the crowd of 200 people who attended the final round of the competition. “In a time of record-high burn-out rates and attrition rates, we hope that our platform can make even the smallest difference.”
Even teams that didn’t win a cash prize didn’t go home empty-handed: the five groups who made it to the final round will benefit from professional workshops and mentoring to refine their business plans in the coming months. Plus, since their pitches were made in front of a crowd of industry professionals and SHA alumni, it’s possible the teams may have caught the eye of a potential investor.
“We did not want this to be a binary output event, where either you won or if you didn’t, that’s the end of it,” Vardharajan said. “We wanted to make sure that there was learning through the process. That was why we partnered with the Innovate@BU team, to ensure that we provided mentoring at different levels, and even going forward post-competition.”
Arun Upneja, SHA dean, said that he hopes the annual competition will attract venture capitalists and angel investors in the future and be open to teams beyond Boston University. “The long-term plan is we want this to become a premier event for anyone—not just with a BU affiliation—who has an innovative idea in the world of hospitality,” he said.