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'Shark Tank' casting call draws wide range of pitches from UM alumni, students


Buttercream:   Kristine Graulich (left, BBA '00) and Jose Cuellar.


 Room2Care:   Todd Florin, (left, MD and MBA '12) and Richard Ashenoff (MBA '12)

By Richard Westlund 

Todd Florin, who earned an MD/MBA degree from the University of Miami in 2012, believes America is ready for a new concept in senior residential care.  Jordan Barrocas, who earned his MBA from UM in 2011, wants to expand his fillet mignon beef jerky business, while Justin Lichtenstaedter, a 2010 business school graduate, is ready to roll out Yapper, a location-based mobile chat service.

On Friday,  more than a dozen University of Miami alumni and student teams pitched their entrepreneurial concepts at a casting call for "Shark Tank," the critically acclaimed business-theme TV series airing on ABC and in syndication on CNBC.  

"Our school has an excellent reputation for having alumni who start successful businesses," said Susana Alvarez, director of entrepreneurship programs at the UM School of Business Administration, which hosted the casting call. "The 'Shark Tank' producers took that into consideration when selecting UM as the site of this casting call."   Two teams led by UM School of business graduates, Rodolfo Saccoman and Omar Soliman, were featured on the show in 2009.

Making their pitch on Friday were UM alumni Florin and Richard Ashenoff II, founders of rooms2care.com. "America is aging and there is a serious shortage of affordable senior care," Florin told the three "Shark Tank" evaluators, Mindy Zemrak,  casting manager, Michael Kramer, senior producer, and Shawn Aly, casting associate. "Our goal is to connect people with extra space in their homes with seniors who need some support." The team is seeking $100,000 from the show's five "Sharks" to launch and promote its innovative residential concept.

In his pitch, Lichtenstaedter asked for $200,000 to roll out his location-based messaging app Yapper, recently launched at eight universities. "This allows you to have conversations with everyone in your area in real time," he said. "It's ideal if you're going to a sporting event or a business conference or just watching 'Shark Tank' at home on a Friday night."

When Kramer asked him how Yapper will make money, Lichtenstaedter said the company's revenue model is based on geotargeted advertising, based on users' demonstrated interests, such as sports teams or happy hour lounges.

Three of the teams focused on upscale food products, including Barrocas' "Three Jerks Jerky," a company whose products are now in 75 independent grocery stores. "We are already profitable, but need funding to expand to the national chains," he said.

Alumnus Nekishia Lester hopes her sweet potato products will capture America's taste buds. "We make pies, parfaits and smoothies with this superfood, and we're looking for investment to expand our family business," she said.

For alumnus Kristine Graulich and her husband Jose Cuellar, funding from a "Shark Tank" investor would allow them to expand Buttercream Cupcakes, their seven-year-old business, whose customers include singer Celine Dion and Miami Heat star Chris Bosh. "We sell more than 150,000 cupcakes a year, but we have reached capacity," Graulich said. "We want to open a flagship store, expand our menu and keep growing our market."

After sampling a mini-cupcake, Zemrak had high praise, saying it was "the best frosting" she had ever tasted. Graulich responded with a big smile and a heartfelt plea, "Buttercream has been our baby for the past seven years," she said. "I want to be on 'Shark Tank' more than I want to breathe air."

Posted Jan. 16, 2015