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Hartford contest spotlights startups made in Connecticut

Mar 25, 2023Mar 25, 2023

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Ming Hui of New Haven-based Mobabbi pitches her smart potty to judges at the FORGE startup contest in Hartford on June 5, 2023.

FORGE Vice President Adam Rodrigues speaks at a startup contest hosted by the Massachusetts-based nonprofit in Hartford on on June 5, 2023.

Entrepreneur Ming Hui demonstrates use of her smart potty for use in potty-training of infants at the FORGE startup contest in Hartford on June 5, 2023.

Brandon Ross of Pawsome Pet Products in Bridgeport demonstrates his product at the FORGE startup contest in Hartford on June 5, 2023.

Mobabbi founder Ming Hui accepts her fifth-place prize and check at the FORGE startup contest in Hartford on June 5, 2023.

UConn grad Jeremy Bronen with his first-place-winning product, the Toilet Lift Assist, at the FORGE startup contest in Hartford on June 5, 2023.

Her potty prototype was on the hot seat, but Ming Hui was ready.

Judges peppered Hui with questions: How does her smart potty work with a phone app? How is she moving her potty toward production? How is it different from potty-training devices already on the market?

Hui explained that her Mobabbi smart potty was designed for infants as young as nine months, training them with sounds to go in the potty and skip the toddler diaper phase. The New Haven-based entrepreneur wants to challenge the $80 billion diaper industry and allow parents to return to the age-old practice of early potty training.

"The competitive landscape is ripe for disruptive innovation," Hui said. "In addition to being a mother to a child, I also have a lot of business experience in finance strategy and operations. So I have what it takes to bring this product to the market."

Hui and four other entrepreneurs gave their elevator pitches to a panel of judges Monday at an event by FORGE Connecticut in Hartford. All had hopes of winning a $20,000 first prize and making connections to move their products forward.

FORGE, a nonprofit startup booster based in Somerville, Mass., hosted the event and funded the prizes as part of its launch in the state.

"We connect innovators with great Connecticut suppliers and manufacturers, and we're a nonprofit, we’re here to work with all of you," said FORGE Vice President Adam Rodrigues.

"FORGE is here to help innovators move from prototype to commercialization and scale production," Executive Director Laura Teicher said. "We want to work with you if you’re an innovator with at least an early physical prototype, if you're a regional manufacturer or supplier eager to engage with innovative products."

The big winner at Monday's event was another potty-adjacent invention: The Toilet Lift Assist device created by UConn grad Jeremy Bronen and his partners.

The device fits on most toilets, uses gas springs for power and prevents injuries to both older adults and healthcare workers. The springs, similar to those on car trunks and screen doors, are designed to lift 80 percent of a user's body weight.

"There are electric versions but we’re different and better," Bronen said.

Bronen's company, Woodbridge-based SedMed, has manufactured 250 units of the Toilet Lift Assist after an $881,000 seed round led by Connecticut Innovations. The company said it hopes to use the $20,000 first-prize FORGE check for new product development, rapid prototyping and introducing a hybrid supply chain.

SedMed launched with help from startup programs through UConn's Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation Quest, and state officials at the event said they hoped to turbo-charge similar efforts across the state to get more products manufactured locally.

"If it's invented in Connecticut, I want it made in Connecticut," said Paul Lavoie, the state's chief manufacturing officer. He added that the state's relatively high cost of doing business has helped shape innovation in recent years.

"We can't throw cheap labor at problems, we can't solve problems in old ways," Lavoie said. "We need to solve problems in new ways, innovative ways."

"We’ve always had innovators in the state of Connecticut… but we didn't have an ecosystem that allowed them to get the resources that they deserve," said Onyeka Obiocha, executive director of CTNext, who also spoke at the FORGE event. He went on to cite the efforts of makerspaces across the state and startup incubators at universities like UConn's programs and Yale's Tsai CITY.

"We’re looking at the ways that we can have CTNext be the glue to bring the people who are already doing incredible work around the same table to continue to support our innovators and entrepreneurs in a variety of different ways," Obiocha said.

Hui of Mobabbi worked with New Haven's MakeHaven makerspace to 3D-print her smart-potty prototype and benefited from startup accelerators to further develop her product. She ended up winning $1,000 for fifth place in the FORGE contest.

"I think it's just exciting that I’ve been able to continue to move forward," Hui said of the process. The FORGE contest was her second, and she said she valued the events for "networking... just getting the name out, finding resources, making more prototypes and testing."

The second-place winner, BRASH of Branford, plans to use its $10,000 in winnings to refine its prototype for an in-home system that can generate both heat and power from a clean-energy fuel source.

Other products highlighted as part of the pitchfest included the Growler Power beverage system, which allows beer lovers to turn growlers into portable kegerators for fresh and cold pours. Other inventors highlighted products like a physical therapy workstation and magnetic jewelry for new mothers that allows easier breast-feeding.

Presenter Brandon Ross of Pawsome Pet Products in Bridgeport wore his invention on his chest — a front-facing carrier that allows for both safe restraint and petting of a pet on the go. A toy "Baby Yoda" was strapped in for demonstration as Ross spoke of how he has been looking to produce his product in-state with help from startup programs.

Ross said he had been getting his carriers made in China and selling them on eBay until a recent supply chain snafu left him short 500 units that he had already paid for.

"It's just a horrible thing," Ross said of his lost product and difficulties coordinating overseas manufacturing. "So I would love to get it back to Connecticut."