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Used clothing platform Shelf wins SwatTank

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On Friday, April 5th, the SwatTank final round commenced at the Swarthmore Inn where three teams — Shelf, CaireWare, and Tricycle — presented their ideas in a five-minute pitch to a panel of judges and a room of their peers, staff, and members of the Swarthmore community. As each team took their turn at the podium, they expressed ideas to potentially solve real-world issues in an effort to receive funding for their start-up ideas.

In the commencement of the finals, SwatTank announced Shelf, a team consisting of Sam Shih ’19, Kyle Yee ’19, and Min Zhong ’19 whose goal was to change the method and face of selling secondhand clothing online, as the winners. CairWare and Tricycle also focused on sustainability efforts in their projects. CairWare explored the idea of generating a service that worked closely with airlines to utilize eco-friendly tableware and trays on airplanes. Tricycle created a working prototype and design for accurately and efficiently sorting the trash on college campuses electronically.  

SwatTank has grown and evolved from an idea created by the Entrepreneurship Club in 2012. This year, sixty students and eighteen teams in total competed, which is double the number from last year.

At its core, SwatTank is a competition aimed at testing the ideas contestants have come up with while also building upon their teamwork and public speaking skills. However, the SwatTank process is more than coming up with ideas.

“SwatTank is one of the longest programs that came out of the center. We start in November and students create proposals right after Thanksgiving break. The teams write up a ten-page report and then go through round one judging, which requires a five-minute pitch in front of a panel of judges, which is made up of staff on campus. From there, three teams are chosen to compete in the final round in front of a panel judges,” Katie Clark, Center for Innovation and Leadership director, said.

Finalists are tasked with utilizing the skills they have learned over the course of this process through a presentation of their ideas. Each team speaks in front of a panel of judges and pitches their ideas using the business model canvas.

While the path to SwatTank is long, contestants are not alone. The Center of Innovation and Leadership provides support to contestants with space and expertise. Alumni mentors work with participants throughout the entire competition.

“There were events held prior to the proposals such as Garage to Google with Nick Lum, who introduced new terminology and offered advice with proceeding in the competition,” Clark said. “In the center, we set them up with alumni mentors for that project idea trying to find a way to bridge the gap between what the student knows and what the alum knows. We try our best to provide a mentor that is in the field that the project is aimed towards.”

The mentoring aspect of the competition proved to be influential to many of the students participating, such as Jasmine Betancourt ’20.

“Our mentor connected us to a lot of people in the College Access space in Chicago and to someone who was working on a similar project to ours in Philly. We were able to reach to the Philanthropy Council and the alumni relations department in order to make connections and get feedback on our project which aided in many of the revisions we made to our project” Betancourt said.

Betancourt participated in the first round of SwatTank as a college and job access initiative to help low income and minority students through college and to later obtain jobs. SwatTank includes ideas of all kinds including, but not limited to, Betancourt’s educational path, health innovations such as MySurge’s idea to create a system of support and tips for surgical recovery, and the common theme among the finalists, sustainability.  

“Tricycle is a fully automatic smart trash can, that improves over time using machine learning. Our team wanted to apply our classroom learnings and work on solving interesting real-world issues!” Jason Jin ’20 said.

Jin and his teammates Henry Han ’20, Eric Wang ’18, Kastan Day ’20 and Theint Kyaw ’19 sought to solve pressing social issues with their project, Tricycle. Shelf took this prioritization of a social good and created a program centered around upcycling clothing.

Shelf is a place for students to buy and sell things second-hand, especially clothes,” Sam Shih ’19 of Shelf said. “The population as a whole, how a lot of clothes get thrown away because there’s no easy and profitable way to get rid of them. Our platform is the solution to that… We’ll pick up clothes for you, we’ll clean it, wash it, photograph it professionally and put it on a site. Here, people can browse a curated selection of second-hand clothes.”

In creating their respective projects, the teams were faced with a series of challenges. Jin’s team was faced with one such obstacle.

There were a lot of technical roadblocks we [had] overcome, namely collecting training data for the machine learning models and also handling edge cases like complex objects and multiple objects,” Jin said. “We’ve been brainstorming with a lot of Swat professors …we’ve set up our prototype in the Science Center the past week and collected over one-thousand images. It’ll be back in Sci in the near future, once we’ve finished the training for machine learning.”

While hurdles part of the process, the competition brought about a series of learning opportunities and offered the competitors many skills they can use in the future.

“Evaluating people’s interest in your ideas … that was pretty challenging, especially on a small campus,” Yee said. “The way we tested Shelf was sending an all-campus email and gauging student interest that way. That was valuable in seeing what ways you can find out what people actually want, whether it’s in the real world focus groups. I think that’s a skill we all want to work on because that’s something we had trouble with.”

Students who participated felt that SwatTank was both fun and educational.

“I think I really learned a lot about the process of creating a start-up and it was really fun to see how we started with one idea and played with it. It was just really cool to play with our idea and present it. It was a really good way to make new friends and get to know people,” Betancourt said.

Aimed at cultivating innovation, communicating with mentors and corporations, and building a connection with others, SwatTank is an event open to all who have an idea and want to learn more about the business start-up process.

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