Auburn mechanical engineering student wins university’s Tiger Cage Pitch Competition with Wave Timer device for utility companies
Zac Young joined Auburn University’s entrepreneurship program last fall with an idea, but desired the program’s mentorship opportunities to develop his business plan and pitching skills.
“I showed up and didn’t even know what a pitch was—that’s how much they helped me,” said Young, a senior in mechanical engineering and founder of Vulcan Line Tools.
“I’m an engineer at heart. I can bootstrap, design, build and solve problems, but presenting my ideas to potential investors was not my strong suit. Listening to an engineer talk about the importance of sag, tension and temperature in power lines isn’t exactly riveting.”
But pitch competition judges think so.
Six months after entering the program, Young had already won the 2020 SECU Student Business Pitch Competition and the Auburn Harbert College of Business’ Halloween Pitch Competition. On Friday, March 26, the Birmingham, Alabama, native added Auburn’s premier student pitch competition—the Seventh Annual Tiger Cage—to his trophy case, wowing judges with the Wave Timer, a handheld device used by utility companies to measure sag, tension and temperature in power lines.
“Winning the Tiger Cage has been such a blessing,” said Young, who earned $25,000 in startup capital for first place, plus another $2,500 as the event’s Technology Innovation award-winner.
“The competition with other highly talented teams has kept each of us from becoming complacent and makes me constantly look for new ways to improve the company and pitch. I’ve made a ton of progress in these past few months that I wouldn’t have made without the Tiger Cage program.”
Presented by the Harbert College of Business, four teams were given 10 minutes to pitch their ideas, via Zoom, before 14 industry professional judges. Teams were then questioned by judges on financials, market shares, product availability, etc.
Second place and $12,000 in startup capital went to mechanical engineering students Wynn Gamble and Chase Maasdorp for SmartStall, formerly StalLock, a hands-free, restroom stall latch that utilizes motion sensor technology.
Tied for third place and earning $6,000 in startup capital was MaKayla Smith, an MBA student within the Harbert College of Business who started Kulture Xchange, an online bazaar to outsource minority-owned beauty and wellness products.
Tied for third place, too, and earning $6,000 in startup capital was Mitch Owens, a senior in finance, whose business, Dead Bird, features premium duck calls and sportswear.
“Each of the teams were great and very enthusiastic about their product, which I love," said Olivia Cook, policy research analyst for the Alabama Commission of Higher Education, who not only served as a judge but also has been a past Tiger Cage runner-up (Snippety Snap in 2018 with Courtney Haun) and pitch coach.
“In the competition a few years back, that's what we felt like we brought to the table—passion, enthusiasm and just really excited about the business that we had. So, I really appreciated that from all teams bringing that to the table,” Cook said.
What differentiated Young from the competition?
“I felt like he really knew his market,” Cook added. “He knew how to go about demonstrating the product. He showed a video throwing the Wave Timer up in the air, it falling down and not be broken. That was one of my main concerns. How was it resistant? What did the wear and tear look like? And he pinpointed all of those little concerns I had.”
Also judging the competition were Joseph Allison, retired senior vice president at Stratsys; Jesse Channon, chief revenue officer at Colcare; Dabsey Maxwell, CFO and COO at Progress Bank; Tara Wilson, founder and CEO at the Tara Wilson Agency; Rob Roblin, retired CEO at Collation; Danny Strickland, retired CIO at Coca-Cola; Greg Cessna, CEO at Consumer Fresh Produce; Doyle Powell, CEO at The Powell Group; Ralph Runge, founder at R2 Consulting; Tim Denison, private national security consultant; Matt Kemph, director of intelligence community support at In-Q-Tel; Ron Schier, franchise owner at Yet Another Broken Egg; and Rebecca Vaught, founder and CEO at Van Heron Labs.
Young credited the help of Lou Bifano, director of entrepreneurship strategy at Auburn University, and Entrepreneurs in Residence Scott McGlon and Phil Fraher for developing his business skills.
“The amount of knowledge I have gained these past few months through the New Venture Accelerator and the entrepreneurship program is the highlight of my college career,” said Young, who will also compete in Alabama Launchpad later this spring.
“In addition to gaining knowledge, my mentors in the entrepreneurship program left an impact on me as a person. Scott treated me like a son and helped me through some extremely difficult decisions. I can’t thank God, Auburn, my mentors or my friends enough. I could not have done it without them. Auburn should be extremely proud of all of the teams that participated this year. I can’t wait to see the success each of them will have.”
Maasdorp and Smith also praised the entrepreneurship program and Tiger Cage competition.
“Being an engineering student, we don’t get too deep in the financial side of things,” Maasdorp said. “But with Tiger Cage, I have been pushed to learn more about the business world to set SmartStall up for success. The competition has been a great way for Wynn and me to meticulously edit and adjust our pitch to be as effective as possible to potential investors. We learned how to talk about the problem, solution, financials and logistics in a way that draws emotion.”
Smith noted that her presentation skills became stronger through each round of the competition, which began in January with quarterfinals.
“I learned how to create a more effective presentation that will engage, but not overwhelm my audience,” she said. “I also learned how to better focus my message to get the most important elements across to judges and investors. This is a key skill because when pitching my idea before investors, you have only a split second to capture their attention and leave them wanting to know more.”
Bifano, who directed the event, believes that entrepreneurship is “thriving at Auburn University.”
“The Tiger Cage competition provides coaching and mentoring to our students on how to develop a business plan, evolve their plan, learn how to pitch their ideas and then tie it all together with proposals and pitches before industry professional judges to compete for startup capital awards," he said. “That’s what the Tiger Cage is all about—preparing our aspiring entrepreneurs for what they might encounter beyond Auburn.”
Cook believes the competition continues to improve.
“Every year, I look forward to it because I ask, 'What's the new idea that's going to come out of this? What are the students thinking about?’” she said. “To see it grow and see the students come in with their innovative ideas has been mind-blowing to me. In terms of what has changed and grown, I would have to say the amount of diversity in teams. Also, what I noticed with the finals was there were many single-member teams. To see the students going in it alone is inspiring.”
Auburn mechanical engineering senior Zac Young won the Seventh Annual Tiger Cage competition for his Wave Timer, a handheld device used by utility companies to measure sag, tension and temperature in powerlines.
Zac Young’s Wave Timer is a handheld device used by utility companies to measure sag, tension and temperature in powerlines.
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The Raymond J. Harbert College of Business at Auburn University is a nationally ranked hub of undergraduate, graduate and continuing business education that is inspiring the next generation of business leaders. World-class faculty deliver unparalleled academic rigor in the classroom, while research-driven scholarship advances thought leadership and best practice in emerging business disciplines. The college’s alumni, friends and corporate partners actively support and engage faculty and students to integrate business theory with practical experience and instill the level of professional proficiency and personal integrity demanded by employers around the globe. Learn more at harbert.auburn.edu.