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A Great Way to Start

Karan Verma, the grand prize winner in the StartUp Weekend 5 entrepreneurial competition held in Troy. (Photo by Carlo de Jesus) 

ALBANY, N.Y. (November 28, 2016) — One bought a goal of enhancing human relationships. Another came with a quest to advance young entrepreneurism.

The result was notable representation for UAlbany at a recent 54-hour event to create innovative new businesses: Karan Verma ’16, a Master of Public Administration (MPA) student in Rockefeller College, and Ryan Taratko, a junior with a concentration in finance/marketing, took the number one and three spots in a competition that included 28 participants ranging in age from 18 to 67 from four states.

Both Verma and Taratko lead entrepreneurial teams in the campus’s Blackstone LaunchPad program.

StartUp Weekend 5, held on Nov. 4-6 at Russell Sage College in Troy, was the fifth year for the competition in the Capital Region. StartUp weekends are held worldwide, bringing entrepreneurs together with mentors, investors and sponsors to develop their ideas.

Karan Verma, along with his brother Rohit, who’s based in their hometown of Chicago, took the grand prize with MESH, a relationship app using Vedic astrology and modern predictive algorithms to gauge long-term fits between couples. It was born through the brothers’ fascination with the fact that their parents’ marriage was arranged in India, based on “compatibility” through Vedic astrology.

“We've always held a torch in our hearts for the kind of love our parents have for one another, even after 30 years,” said Karan. Rohit began extensive study of how Vedic astrology works. After about two years, he began doing peoples' charts as practice, and eventually began receiving $300 or more per reading.

“He came to realize this business model was not scalable and hard to sustain while also working full time as a product manager in the healthcare industry,” said Karan, “so we refined our idea to come up with MESH.”

StartUp Weekend judges were impressed with the Vermas’ app, moving it from the opening Saturday night to the round of six finalists on Sunday, where the idea triumphed. “We are not a dating site,” Karan emphasized. “Through our predictive algorithms, couples can better understand each other’s capacity to be part of a healthy, fulfilling, and successful romantic relationship. The solution then goes a step further to suggest actionable steps the couple can take together and individually to help unlock the full potential of their relationship.”

Jan Woodcock, executive director of UAlbany's Blackstone LaunchPad, is duly impressed with Verma's initiative and achievements. "Karan has been a Blackstone ambassador as a senior and graduate student, and he's is involved in 3 start-ups," said Woodcock. "I am glad his work at MESH is recognized."

UAlbany student entrepreneur
Ryan Taratko, with some friends in county Donegal, Ireland, last May.

Unlike Verma, Taratko did not go to Troy with anything like a fully developed business idea in hand — or mind. “I went in totally blind, expecting just to listen to other entrepreneurs tell their stories — I didn’t know I had to make a pitch,” he said.

Thinking quickly, he recalled a “silly idea” he and some fellow freshman friends had two years before to create a dessert that combined both salty and sweet flavors. To his surprise upon presenting it, other entrepreneurs came up to him, wanting to be part of his management team. Before long, Taratko’s dessert idea had market researchers, data analysts and assessors of costs and competition. His instant “company” made the finals and grabbed a third.

It was an effort that mirrored his current brain child with Blackstone: The Mash Card, an interactive college student discount card that he is developing with In Focus Brands, a Capital Region company that advances start-up businesses. The Mash Card has already gathered several discounts from local vendors, created a Wednesday sweepstakes prize, and gotten students from other college campuses to participate.

His purpose, however, was beyond one business start-up. “The idea behind The Mash Card is to create a community around the student entrepreneur and give us a group of skills — such as building apps, creating websites, conducting data analysis —that we will apply to our future ventures,” he said. He runs The Mash Card’s event coordination and heads its sales team, but other handle its data analysis, social media and other components.

"Ryan is an intern through Blackstone this year, working to support The Mash Card venture," said Woodcock. "His placing is the Start Up Weekend with his separate unique venture is a true testament to his entrepreneurial fire."

“There’s a million ideas happening every day among kids in college — all we need is the direction to get us started,” said Taratko. “That’s what I appreciated so much about the StartUp 5 experience — everyone working together, building their skills.” He says that’s the direction he wants to remain in after graduation — “keep building businesses.”

As for Verma, after graduating with his MPA, he plans on returning to Chicago, where a job awaits him with “Big Four” auditing firm KPMG, for whom he did an internship this past summer. Like Taratko, developing the talents of others is a strong motivation.

“In the MPA program and my leadership development graduate assistantship I have been learning valuable lessons in emotional intelligence and humanistic management,” Verma said. “This lens helps me bring something different to the table — figuring out ways to optimize a person’s strengths.”

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