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'Rutgers Business Plan Competition' awards $45,000 to three entrepreneurs

Brian Bergen said he learned the fundamentals of business while serving in the military. Now that training has paid off with a $20,000 award.

Similar to the reality television show “Shark Tank,” participants in the annual “Rutgers Business School Business Plan” competition created a viable business plan and presented their entrepreneurial endeavors to a panel of three judges.

Bergen, owner of the Denville, New Jersey-based interior landscaping company Bergen Botanicals, won the $20,000 prize. 

Paula Zwiren, president of Zwiren Title Agency in Livingston, New Jersey, received $15,000 for second place.

Zwiren and Bergen are both Flex MBA students.

Flex MBA graduates Sarah Blessing and Joanna Trzaska and their team, Aamir Khan and Leann Cosley-Richardson, won the $10,000 third-place prize for the fitness band TRAINgle. 

Ray Rossi, director of the competition since 2011, said Rutgers tried to select businesses with a high probability of success that are on the verge of becoming commercialized and are ready to launch. 

Although Bergen admitted he has no green thumb, his company is raking in the green with anticipated annual revenues of $150,000 this year. 

In Bergen’s entry, employees log each service visit on a mobile application and submit the notes and records of work performed to the clients via email. This streamlines the entire process for both customers and staff.

“A young entrepreneur can find one of these service industries with slow-moving, outdated processes and use new technology to be more efficient and look more impressive to potential customers,” Bergen said.

Before studying entrepreneurship at Rutgers, Bergen received his undergraduate degree from the United States Military Academy at West Point and spent eight years in the U.S. military, where he also served in Iraq.

Bergen attributes much of his hands-on business success to the military, where he honed his skills in risk taking, decision making and self-discipline.

Bergen Botanicals, a service-disabled veteran-owned business, donates 20 percent of its profits to organizations supporting veterans with disabilities. 

It is also on track to become the first Benefits Corporation in its industry. The title holds the company to certain business practices, such as buying all supplies from local vendors, Bergen said.

“Giving back makes me feel fulfilled,” he said. 

Bergen and second-place winner Zwiren had multiple classes together before competing against each other.

Zwiren was drawn to real estate at a young age. Her mother, father and stepmother all worked in the business, which is why it was no shock when she formed her the title agency in 2013. 

“The day my mother gave birth to me, she was looking at a title file,” she said. “The title industry just came naturally to me.”

Zwiren spotted a business opportunity when the government enacted regulations to tighten the standards banks follow when they do business with third-party title agencies.

Winning the competition gives Zwiren Title Agency, a certified women-owned business, a new benchmark of success. Clients need a reason to work with a start-up instead of an established company, she said, and the award offers her greater credibility.

During the multi-step process of the competition, Zwiran was forced to think about her business in a fresh way. She said the insight she gained from the exercise was valuable.

Zwiren used the money to purchase target customers and mail a marketing campaign to more than 2,000 attorneys.

In addition to holding an MBA, Zwiren is a licensed attorney in New York and New Jersey. Her legal experience, combined with her business experience, made the judges feel her title agency would succeed.

Unlike the other competition winners, TRAINgle is a product-based business. Blessing came up with the idea for a more stylish-looking fitness bracelet during one of her entrepreneurship classes. So she partnered with fellow classmates Cosley-Richardson, Khan and Trzaska to design TRAINgle — a play on the word bangle. The wearable device tracks steps, distance and calories burned. 

“TRAINgle found a niche by following the health and wellness craze in the country,” Rossi said. “The idea to make the bracelets people wear to track their health more fashionable was something that had a high probability of success.”

The wearable device prototype was developed using 3D printing technology. The team plans to use the prize money to secure a patent for the product.

In previous years, at least two-thirds of the business competition proposals the judges received were apps. Virtually none made it to the semi-finals because the competition for apps is too high and the probability of success too low, Rossi said.

“A lot of people have great ideas, but they don’t go anywhere because they haven’t analyzed market needs closely enough,” Rossi said. “TRAINgle was able to figure out exactly what the market needed.” 

Executive summaries for next year’s competition are due by Dec. 5, 2014.