It’s May 12, 2022, 8:00 am, and most Lake Forest High School students are just rolling out of bed since it’s a late-start block day. But the three young entrepreneurs from Find Fit are suited-up and ready to pitch their online health and fitness service to a panel of judges. Thirty-minutes later, Find Fit’s Mark Basgall, Jack Rosenberg and Ian Fickes-Wagaw wrap up their polished presentation about start-up expenses, serviceable markets, unique value proposition, financing, marketing strategies, valuation (and more) and engage in a hearty Q&A with the judges. This same process repeats for the rest of the day as 10 teams participate in Academic Pitch, all vying for the coveted opportunity to present at Pitch Night on May 20th.
Leave Your Backpack at the Door
Flashback to August 18, 2021, 8:00 am, and it’s the start of a new school year. The first group of juniors walk through the doors of the Business Incubator classroom, wondering what the year will bring. Some have been looking forward to taking the honors-level business class since Business Entrepreneurship freshman year. Others selected the class based off of recommendations from older friends and siblings or were encouraged to take it by their parents. However they landed in the incubator, the students quickly turn into budding entrepreneurs.

“Early on, Mr. LaScala told us to leave our backpacks and school life at the door, because this is not a normal class. We’re creating a business. He said we would be more successful if we don’t think about it as a grade but as something we want to work hard to do,” said Tessa Poulton, a LFHS junior.

Led by teachers Phil LaScala and Joe Pulio, the student entrepreneurs progressively learn all aspects of business over the course of the school year. The process starts at ideation and problem-solution identification in the fall; turns into creating a product/service over the winter; then focuses on preparing a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) presentation to secure funding to test products/services in the spring; and culminates in pitching their products/services to judges and investors just before school ends. The MVP presentation is a requirement of the class. But, after reviewing the feedback from the judges and assessing their product/service viability, the teams themselves decide if they are going to continue on to Academic Pitch for a chance to win funding at Pitch Night.
Entrepreneurship Teaches Life Skills
“Over the years, the academic pitches have become really strong, so the competition to advance to Pitch Night is extremely tough,” says LFHS Foundation Vice Chair Peter Clemens, a retired healthcare executive who helps manage the Business Incubator program. “With the growth of the program, the students have become more capable and skilled at presenting earlier in the process, so the quality we’re seeing at Academic Pitch is what we used to see at Pitch Night.”

The true value of the class is the knowledge and skills that the students gain. So for the teams that don’t make it all the way, nothing is lost. Many of the students taking the class decide to pursue business in college; for others taking the class helps rule out business as a major. But regardless of their future path, the entrepreneurial skills learned in the Business Incubator prepare them to be successful in college and in life.

Allergy Armor partners Harry Capstick, Evan Sloan, Morgan Saltzman, and Henry McGlynn were working to develop a strip to test food for specific allergens (like peanuts). While they decided not to participate in the Academic Pitch (noting that their product became a stretch because it would be almost impossible to develop with limited time and money), they discussed some of their positive outcomes from the class, like becoming better collaborators and teammates.

“A lot of this class is about the group dynamic. While we didn’t have the best start or our product wasn’t the best thing we could have done, we’ve learned to value the experience and keep stepping up and doing more for our group and for the class,” said Saltzman. 

Mark Cervieri, Isabelle Lisk, Jeremy Zelken, Mateo Morrone, and Rocco Caputo, from Steer Secure (a business focused on developing a product that would keep drivers from texting while driving), highlighted what they learned about the importance of networking. “There have been a lot of resources that were accessible to us. And we had a lot of success reaching out and connecting with people who really helped us out along the way,” said Cervieri.

The young entrepreneurs also said that the class has made them better public speakers, creative thinkers, problem solvers and more confident in themselves. These soft skills can be applied to any position in any industry and are becoming more important every day.
More Highlights from Academic Pitches
Connell Sassen, Pride Haggerty, Sarina Vora, and Sean Kupperman, the founders of EZ Plugs, wowed the judges and audience with their fully functioning customizable power strip prototype. The first versions of the power strip were developed using the school’s 3D printer. The third version came to life after EZ Plug’s young entrepreneurs raised seed funding and negotiated a deal with prototype manufacturer, Kickr Design.

Shelf-life was a hot topic during Tasty Recovery’s pitch of their all-natural (no preservatives or additives), on-the-go athletic recovery powder packets. Jack Griffin, Maeve Bradley, Kareem Alsikafi, and Cole Graham sourced their product’s high-quality freeze-dried ingredients from an Illinois farm. Since the entrepreneurs have been packaging their own samples for taste tests, one of their goals is to find a packaging and manufacturing partner.

Simply Nav founders Brennan Riley, Josh Dueringer, Tessa Poulton, and Molly Kelly pitched the app they want to build to help students better navigate their high school experience. When the team first presented the idea, the app was solely a navigation tool to help its users find their way around a school. But as they more fully developed their idea, the Simply Nav team evolved their product offering to include a hub experience that will better socially-emotionally connect students to their community.

On the fast-track, The Birthday Genies—Chloe Robb, Sasha Robb, Robert Medica, Fitz Diefenbach, and Georgio Koliatsis—have already launched their service, a birthday party business catering to the local Forest-Bluff area. The Birthday Genies are looking to diversify their service offering, starting with summer camps. The Birthday Genies donate 5% of profits to Lurie Children’s Hospital.

Party Pack’s James Farrell, Jason Schacher, Juliana Brunetti, and Katie Bradley described how they already beat their initial sales goals and reinvested money back into their company for their product—themed boxes that come with all of the party supplies needed to host a party (plates, napkins, balloons, streamers, confetti, goody bags, favors candles, etc.) so that people can save time and money and reduce the stress of party planning.
Walking Buddy’s Zoe Frentzas, Maura Camoletto, Jake Kroner, Sam Larson, and a furry friend pitched their product, a 5-in-1 retractable and reflective dog leash that includes a flashlight and can hold waste bags, water and treats and personal belongings. The team connected with Yuppy Puppy and pet owners to do market research and gauge interest in their product.

Caroline Donnelley, Harry Kotlarz, Michael Burden, and Nick Abbagnaro pitched their service company, Campus Scouter, which is a college search service that connects high school students with alumni from their school and students enrolled in college to help with the college search process.

Completely pivoting after their MVP Presentation, Vincent Nottoli, Caroline Lee, Sophie Delhey, Van Dugan, and Harry Moore’s effort and determination to get their new business, Decentraschool, ready for Academic Pitch captivated the judges. In a one-month period, the team did all of the work needed for a business pitch and hosted test-run webinars to assess the viability of their service.

During ConnectTeens’ pitch, Jocum Schabacher, Sofia Davis, Emerson Edwards, Nick Roumain, and Anthon Kildbane, talked about their personal struggles to find a job and how that led them to create their subscription-based job finder for high school students. The team established a relationship with the Lake Forest/Lake Bluff Chamber of Commerce and did a test-run with a student to see what job placement looked like through ConnectTeens, which included resume building and interview tips.
Advancing From Incubator to Accelerator
After the judges’ results were in, Decentraschool, EZ Plugs, Simply Nav, and Tasty Recovery were announced as the four teams advancing to Pitch Night. Teams that are awarded funding during Pitch Night will take Business Accelerator Honors senior year and work toward launching their products/services.

Second-year business students, Ally Galiene, Julia Grum, Colin Martens, and Lauren Milanak, recently reflected on their growth from startup toward launch with their accelerator business, Brush Bestie.

“Last year there was a lot of learning about business. This year is much more independent and in our own hands,” said Galiene. “Everything that we have done this year, we have had to go get it,” added Grum. 

And they certainly have done a lot! From pitching at both the Seton Hall Pirates Pitch Competition and the SXSW EDU Conference to a televised segment on WGN News, Brush Bestie continues to move closer and closer to their goal of a product launch.

The team credits their accelerator mentor, Laura George, and their partnership with Jonathan Katz from Lifeworking Coworking’s Community Innovation Collaborative (CIC) Small Business Incubator, for helping them get where they are today. “Our mentor provided us contacts that we weren’t expecting. And Lifeworking Coworking has also been a really great resource to have,” said Martens.

After last year’s Pitch Night, Lifeworking Coworking’s founder, Steve Whittington, awarded Brush Bestie, space in and additional mentorship through the CIC Small Business Incubator, where they work with Katz. “We have Jonathan as another advisor. He’s another person with experience to bounce ideas off of,” said Martens.

Prior to Brush Bestie's SXSW pitch, Katz invited the team to present at CIC’s networking night where they were able to present to a full room of entrepreneurs. “The CIC community gave us really helpful advice and feedback,” said Grum. “I was a little scared to present in front of them, but what I learned that night is that it’s never too late to try something new. We are doing what everyone there is also doing. We are all in the same boat.”

As the Brush Bestie team nears graduation and will soon be heading to college, everyone is wondering what their next step is. “We’re negotiating a deal with a company out of Elmhurst who wants to manufacture our product and give us royalties for each one sold,” explained Martens. “And they want us to be the face and the story behind the product, so we would still get to be involved.”

“This is the most ideal situation for us since we’re all heading in different directions,” said Grum. “It’s a relief to know that we don’t have to be there 100% and that they would be the ones focusing on getting it to market. Brush Bestie holds such a special place in our hearts, we want to see it out there!”
Join Us Friday For This Year's Big Event
The LFHS Foundation is hosting Pitch Night at LFHS’ Raymond Moore Auditorium this Friday, May 20 at 7:00 pm. The entire community is invited to attend (it will also be livestreamed). Thanks to all of the Pitch Night partners for their generous donations that help fund the $10,000 in prize money to support the winning teams as they launch their businesses. If you are also interested in supporting these teams, donations can be made here. Potential investors who are interested in more substantial investments (with the expectation of a return on investment), should reach out here.
We are so excited to have EVERYONE back in person this year!!
We are also grateful to this year's Pitch Night Partners.
Thanks to EVERYONE Supporting These Teams
Program Volunteer Leaders:
Peter Clemens
Stuart Scholly
Susan Loiacano

Jennifer Abernathy
Mark Allen
Sonia Boudreau
Craig Collister
Jennifer Gattari
Kathryn Haydon
Corey Holmer
Corbett Lamb
Peter Leech
Michael Obiala
Lisa Simone Porter
Doug Warren
Incubator Mentors:
Sonia Boudreau          
Tom Condon 
Eric Cooper      
Hal Davis 
Shawn Folkes    
Mike Obiala      
Michael Reinhardt
Peter Silvestri 
Matthew Sunderman 
Samina Waggoner
Doug Warren    
  Rob Wilder  
Incubator Co-Mentors:
Lena Benjakul
Samantha Borland
Edward Borland
Julie Currie
Michelle Gramza
William Schwartz
Jeff Yehle
Greg Strauss
Chris Hartrich   
Steven Whittington      
Kate Jackson     
Diane Fleming  
Laura Crandall

Accelerator Mentors:
Susan Milanak
Corbett Lamb
Laura George

LFHS Teachers:
Phil LaScala
Joe Pulio
Lake Forest High School Foundation |