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Blugolds' app project wins statewide business competition

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Several UW-Eau Claire students and recent graduates used their creative and business skills to earn top honors in the 2020-21 WiSys APPStart Challenge, a statewide competition that connects mobile app ideas with the expertise and resources needed to launch them. The team created an app that connects multiple Bluetooth-enabled devices into one centralized app. (Photo by Shane Opatz)

A team including University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students and recent graduates earned top honors in the 2020-21 WiSys APPStart Challenge, a statewide competition that connects mobile app ideas with the expertise and resources needed to launch them.

The team’s app for its startup company, ParityBlu, offers an all-in-one solution to connect multiple Bluetooth-enabled devices — such as TVs, speakers or smart thermostats — into one centralized app.

“I almost couldn’t believe it,” Sam Fitzhenry, who will graduate from UW-Eau Claire in December with a business major and a physics minor, says of winning the contest. “Knowing we were top three in August helped us focus on our business model and maximize our app prototype. So, it was really a matter of executing a great pitch and waiting for our hard work to pay off.

“It’s exciting to have come this far. Winning the challenge allows us to continue pushing to turn our vision into a reality.”

The ParityBlu team includes Fitzhenry, who is from Oshkosh; Max Bossert, an Oshkosh native who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in December 2020 with a major in physics with an applied emphasis and a minor in mathematics; Logan Ickert, a Wausau native who graduated in May with a computer science-software engineering major and a mathematics minor; and UW-Madison student Nicholas Hersperger.

The competition is fierce, and the expectations of applicants are high, Ann Rupnow, who teaches entrepreneurship, says of the app contest. But ParityBlu is one of those startup teams that you get excited about, she says.

“They have complementary skill sets and the necessary drive to plow through rough spots knowing they are onto something the market needs,” Rupnow says. “You don’t have all the answers when you seek to do something innovative in the tech realm, but ParityBlu continues to develop their company, and along the way they won the AppStart Challenge. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

As the winner of the challenge, the team receives more than $10,000 in cash and services to help it launch its app as a business.

The annual contest — open to students, faculty, staff and alumni from UW-Eau Claire and 10 other UW schools affiliated with WiSys — drew more than 70 entries, which were evaluated on the significance of the problem being addressed and the participants’ vision for how their app could solve the problem.

“Congratulations to the ParityBlu team for all their hard work, not only coming up with a great idea, but working to take it to the next step,” WiSys president Arjun Sanga said in a statement. “WiSys is proud to support these emerging entrepreneurs.”

WiSys is a nonprofit organization that works with faculty, staff, students and alumni to facilitate cutting-edge research programs, develop and commercialize discoveries and foster a spirit of innovative and entrepreneurial thinking across the state.

Finding inspiration

Last year, Bossert was building a robot for his physics capstone project but struggled to use open-source software in tandem with Bluetooth. After sharing his frustrations with Fitzhenry, the Blugolds began brainstorming ideas for addressing the issue, a conversation that eventually sparked their app idea.

“Max’s struggles with executing software onto his robot interested me, and as we continued talking about the problem, we found that we felt strongly about some standards that Bluetooth has created and implemented into our daily technologies,” Fitzhenry says.

They realized that any device, such as wireless speakers, headphones and TVs, all require their own application to manage them.

“If people or families use these technologies daily in their homes, it becomes cluttered and unmanageable to use them, especially if they have different brands of like technologies, all requiring their own application to manage,” Fitzhenry says. “Many top tech companies promote their smart technologies as the end-all solution, but brand loyalty is required to achieve device autonomy.”

Building a business

Intrigued by the problem they identified and potential solutions, Bossert and Fitzhenry continued to brainstorm ideas and invited Ickert and Hersperger to join the conversation. Several months later, the team came up with a product to address the multi-device problem they’d identified — ParityLink.

ParityLink consists of hybrid wireless hubs that users can place around their house. These hubs generate a mesh network that allow the user to pair an unlimited number of devices to one network and manage it on one application.

By using ParityLink, people can pair with devices of different brands, allowing maximum use of each technology, Fitzhenry says. ParityLink also allows users to move through their houses and have their devices and settings in each room activate based on their movements.

“This effectively unlocks a home full of high-tech and heavily used technologies, making them more accessible and fully functionable for any need,” Fitzhenry says. “Imagine three different brands of speakers paired to your Google Home. Now imagine your smart lights in the bathroom paired to your smart lights in the hallway. All these devices can be connected and managed together, separate or anything in between with all other devices in the space. Think of ParityLink as the first introduction to a DIY smart home.”

In October 2020, the team founded ParityBlu LLC, a startup company built on the principle that every technology consumer is entitled to comprehensive and limitless opportunities to evolve and incorporate their technologies without proprietary limitations.

Fitzhenry credits his entrepreneur class and UW-Eau Claire faculty with helping him and his teammates take their idea and build it into a product that is the basis for their business.

“After we got a little bit of footing on our idea through my entrepreneurship class, we knew we really wanted to take it further,” Fitzhenry says. “The four of us believed in the idea, and given the scope of the technology industry and the growing necessity for wireless networks and smart technology, we felt it would do well in the APPStart contest.

“Ann Rupnow, my advisor and entrepreneurship instructor, encouraged us to exhaust all our options to build traction and gauge interest in the idea. That was really the push we needed.”

Next steps

With the financial and other assistance they’ll receive as winners of APPStart, the team will continue to design and develop its prototype. Already, it’s consulting with Wisconsin engineering firms about development costs and design plans. Soon, it hopes to secure a contractor and build prototype models. From there, they’ll build a scalable minimum viable product and approach early adopters.

“We’re making a serious push with ParityBlu in the coming months,” Fitzhenry says. “Seeking funding and building our minimum viable product are our No. 1 concerns. We hope that as we build on our vision, we find support from other like-minded individuals. As more people follow us on LinkedIn, talk about our product or learn more about multiconnectivity in the smart home, it’ll help us greatly.”

With graduation nearing, Fitzhenry also now is looking for a full-time job in business development within the technology industry. He also will continue to work with ParityBlu.

“We’re on the threshold of acquiring serious funding, so if we take a little more time to refine our product and implement a prototype, our chances of success will be even higher,” Fitzhenry says.

Path to UW-Eau Claire, entrepreneurship

Having the opportunity to be part of a student team of entrepreneurs and to participate in a statewide entrepreneurial contest — all with the support of professors and others on campus — is exactly what he’d been looking for when he came to UW-Eau Claire, says Fitzhenry, noting that the university’s smaller classes and personal interactions with faculty are what convinced him to become a Blugold.

“Having professors who know and recognize you is a great feeling, and it’s allowed me to discover new passions and to position myself comfortably,” Fitzhenry says.

While he’s now excited about the field of entrepreneurship, it wasn’t a career path that was even on Fitzhenry’s radar when he began his college career.

“I initially wanted to be a materials scientist, so I spent my first few semesters at UWEC taking chemistry and physics courses,” Fitzhenry says. “I quickly discovered I was not driven to continue that path, so I took a leap of faith and switched to business. I switched my majors around quite a few times and ended up finding my passion with management-entrepreneurship and a minor in physics.”

He’s now eager to see where his marketing and entrepreneurship studies will take him.

“Growing up, I always had a vision of introducing some positive change or innovation to the world,” Fitzhenry says. “I never knew what idea that possibly could be, but I found myself trusting that my passions and hobbies would allow me to build on a vision from bottom up. Trusting my shift back to the business world, I immediately found my place, and I’ve never looked back.”

Fitzhenry already is bringing his dreams of making positive change in the world through innovation to life through his work with ParityBlu. That is possible because UW-Eau Claire and its faculty and staff encourage students to think big and to embrace every opportunity, he says.

“I’ve found myself surrounded by opportunities that are created and supported by amazing people,” Fitzhenry says. “Having an amazing safety net of support has allowed me to try new things and take risks. From this, I’ve been able to find myself and rediscover my passions, and I will continue to carry that mindset throughout the rest of my lifetime.”