2017 Business Idea Competition Leads Alum to Job at Local Startup

When Executive MBA alumna and healthcare industry veteran Melissa Ross agreed to serve as a judge for this year’s Business Idea Competition, she had no idea it would have a lasting impact on her career path.

Melissa Ross and Les SchmidtWhen Executive MBA alumna and healthcare industry veteran Melissa Ross agreed to serve as a judge for this year’s Business Idea Competition, she had no idea it would have a lasting impact on her career path. But that’s exactly what happened when she met serial entrepreneur and investor Les Schmidt, who also founded a new accelerator program for entrepreneurs called BRIIA (Bishop Ranch Intelligence Innovation Accelerator).

Every year, SEBA’s Business Idea Competition brings together members of the angel investing community and Saint Mary’s students for an evening of ideas and elevator pitches. Akin to the television show “Shark Tank,” members of the Keiretsu Forum ask questions of the presenters, give feedback, and ultimately select winners from graduate and undergraduate divisions.  Finalists have an opportunity to work with coaches, seasoned entrepreneurs, and industry experts, and further develop their ideas and pitches before the competition itself. 

After the competition, Ross and Schmidt struck up a conversation. He told her about his accelerator in San Ramon, and they talked about the coming “AI Spring” – a term industry insiders use to describe the recent, dramatic growth in artificial intelligence developments. After working for years in various executive business positions, Ross had recently left a job in her chosen field. Ross was so inspired, she decided to join the accelerator herself. 

“There are a lot of companies that are popping up that have innovative ways to solve big problems using artificial intelligence and machine learning,” said Ross. “So BRIAA is really well-positioned to help  those companies get started and provide them with the resources to grow.” 

Ross has been an active member of the SEBA alumni community since she graduated with her MBA in 2014. “I've spent the last 20 plus years in healthcare analytics companies and helping healthcare analytics companies grow. And I've had executive level positions in operations, engineering, sales strategy, business development. I left my most recent position at the beginning of this year and then I met Les,” said Ross. 

Ross isn’t the only Saint Mary’s affiliate who will be working with BRIIA in the future. Professor Noha Elfiky has joined BRIIA as a mentor for startup founders. Her goal is to help attract more entrepreneurs into the East Bay by helping them with data representation, modeling, and analysis. “One of the most challenging tasks for entrepreneurs starts from the early days of building their companies, when they need a significant amount of research, both quantitative and qualitative, to help them understand their target users and their needs. They then compile this research into actionable insights for their product. They also need to constantly collect and feed that data back as they iterate on their products. My goal is to help them throughout that lifecycle,” said Elfiky. 

Melissa Ross“We're really looking to help startups grow, particularly in artificial intelligence and machine learning,” said Ross. “And now seems to be the right time in the market. There’s enough technology and enough data available for artificial intelligence and machine learning so our organization BRIIA is really positioned to help those companies grow and provide them with the resources to get off the ground.”

BRIIA currently has an open call for applicants until July 14. They are specifically looking to accelerate startups in the data innovation arena. “What’s different about BRIIA is that they do not plan on taking equity from the company as many other accelerators do, nor are they looking to take any ownership in the company as a cost to go through the program,” said Ross. “For the first cohort, we're actually not taking any equity, we're not exchanging any money with the company, so it’s a valuable program that a startup can go through, where we can help companies while trying to establish ourselves in the area and grow a co-working space for these kinds of startups in the San Ramon area. 

Professor Berna Aksu, director of the Center for the Regional Economy, and founder of the Business Idea Competition, says leveraging a network of entrepreneurs is one of the goals she had in mind when the competition was created several years ago.  “Not only did we want to challenge our students to think outside the box and give them experience pitching their ideas to real angel investors, but we also saw the value in creating an event and a space where entrepreneurs and investors could interact and learn from one another, create a community and share resources, as well as build relationships that could help forward careers. Melissa is not our first alum who forged a new career path through networking at the competition or through, nor will she be the last."

This year’s winner of the competition was Casey Reilly, an undergraduate double business major with a concentration in entrepreneurship. He won for his idea, LocalEyez, an app that connects travelers with individualized trips with local hosts all over the world. 

BRIIA (Bishop Ranch Intelligence Innovation Accelerator) is looking for start-ups in data innovation (AI, ML, data science, big data, analytics) for their upcoming no cost, no equity accelerator program. Applications for the accelerator are due by July 14 (note extended deadline). Link for application here