Three UMass startups win cash prizes at Amherst Pitch Night

The three startups gained recognition for their innovations

By Maria Elena Little Endara, Collegian Staff

Three startup companies from the University of Massachusetts won a total of $1,000 in cash prizes at Amherst Pitch Night on Feb. 6.

Three undergraduate students won first place, a grand prize of $600. Their startup company, “Bac-Be-Gone,” developed an organic, non-toxic and antimicrobial cleaning agent with the power to kill pathogens on contact.

“We were really proud to have won the Amherst Pitch Night as it was our first outside of UMass pitch. It was really awesome to see the other ideas that are out there in the community, and it was really encouraging to have the support of the public behind us,” says Hailey Charest, a senior chemistry and psychology major who helped to develop the product.

The students initially came up with the idea for their startup when they worked together at Riley Lab on Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus in the fall of 2019. MRSA is an infection which is usually caused by contaminated hospital equipment.

“We discovered that a bacteriocin used in food preservation kills MRSA, so we decided to create a cleaning product company Bac-Be-Gone to apply our discovery to the real world and hopefully make a positive impact on peoples’ lives,” says Charest.

The team plans to use the $600 grand prize to develop a prototype and expand screening, which allows them to determine which pathogens Bac-Be-Gone can kill.

Fourth place was awarded to a startup called AuCoDe, an artificial intelligence-based startup that detects online and social media conversations, was voted fourth place by the audience.

“As a PhD student, I was researching controversies – something that interested me in particular as someone who grew up in the midst of the Middle East conflicts,” said Shiri Dori-Hacohen, a UMass graduate of the college of information and computer sciences who developed the startup. “My work had a lot to do with the Filter Bubble, which means that people online see content that reinforces their pre-existing beliefs.”

After an internship at Facebook in the summer of 2015, Dori-Hacohen confronted Mark Zuckerberg about what Facebook was doing to counteract the filter bubble.

“He denied that there was a filter bubble and got visibly irritated that I was even asking,” said Dori-Hacohen. “At that point I realized that Facebook didn’t truly care about and was in complete denial of the harm it was doing to society, so I decided to address the topic on my own.”

She eventually pitched the idea to the UMass Innovation Challenge in early 2016 and won first place. She used the cash prize to begin funding AuCoDe.

Another UMass student, senior Benjamin Schroeder, was awarded second place and a $300 cash prize for his startup Learn to Wrench which aims to teach people car repair to help them save money.

The pitch night was organized by Valley Venture Mentors, and was an opportunity to network and meet new and up-and-coming businesses. The panel consisted of five judges who voted on the startups. The prizes were sponsored by Peoples Bank, The Mill District, AmherstWorks and Western Mass Economic Development Council.

“Both our winning student groups are active participants in the Berthiaume Center,” said Gregory Thomas, Executive Director of the UMass Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship. “[The startups] They continue to work with their professors and other campus resources to advance their ventures to the next stage.”

“Their winnings at the Amherst Pitch Night show that others are starting to notice their efforts and progress as well,” Thomas added.

Maria Elena Little Endara can be reached at [email protected]