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Team of students finishes in top 5 at state startup contest

April 8, 2019

University of North Georgia (UNG) seniors Caleb Hearn and Samuel Herrera finished in the top five among 19 university and college teams in the inaugural Georgia InVenture Prize student startup competition.

Sponsored by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the University System of Georgia, the event took place April 3-4 at Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) in Atlanta, which aired the competition's final round live. Prizes awarded were $25,000 for first, $15,000 for second and $10,000 for People's Choice Award.

Hearn and Herrera, who both are pursuing degrees in business management, showed off their Opus Affinity app during the semifinals April 3 and finals April 4.

The app targets craft breweries and wineries across the state and features a two-part plan. The first part helps breweries tell their stories and build brand loyalty by using their custom software that links to videos in the app. The second part involves options for those who give craft brews and other specialty items as gifts. A video message can be uploaded and linked to the logo and then viewed by the recipient through the app's custom image recognition software.

"I can't think of a better team of student entrepreneurs than Caleb Hearn and Samuel Herrera to have represented UNG in the inaugural George InVenture Prize competition," said Dr. Mary Gowan, dean of UNG's Mike Cottrell College of Business. "Their presentation was polished and on target. They clearly demonstrated they had a viable business and plans to scale it going forward, and they answered questions from the judges with confidence."

As one of five teams of finalists, Hearn and Herrera pitched their idea to judges Janelle Fitzpatrick, Lonnie Johnson and Tiffany Krumins during the live GPB broadcast. Fitzpatrick's business sells fabric stair gates for people with children or pets. Johnson is a former Air Force and NASA engineer who invented the Super Soaker and has more than 100 patents. Tiffany Krumins was the winner of the inaugural episode of Shark Tank and founded Mom Genius, which creates a variety of products for moms.

Johnson said he could see the Opus Affinity app catching on with breweries not wanting to miss out on the service Opus Affinity's customers are receiving.

"We're very happy with how it went," Hearn said. "We came in with the goal of reaching final five, so we're ecstatic. I think we represented UNG very well, and we're very happy with how UNG helped us out."

Hearn, from Powder Springs, Georgia, and Herrera, from Cumming, Georgia, were grateful to have the chance to share their idea with such a large audience.

"This kind of exposure doesn't come often," Herrera said.

They hope to parlay that attention into momentum.

"We're really hoping that it feeds into clients and we can grow Opus Affinity a lot faster than we initially expected," Hearn said.

The pair advanced to the state competition by winning the $2,000 first prize at the inaugural innovateUNG Pitch Challenge on Feb. 20.

Dr. Ruben Boling, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at UNG, expressed gratitude to the university's administration, faculty, staff, and students for their support of Hearn and Herrera.

"They have a great idea that they're putting into play, and they've worked extremely hard to get here," Boling said. "So when they came on stage, I knew it was going to be good because they know exactly what they're doing, what their market is, how they're going to take it to market. They're going to be successful in what they do, and I have no doubt about that."

The statewide event is modeled off the Emmy-winning InVenture Prize at Georgia Tech, which has spawned Atlantic Coast Conference and K-12 competitions of the same name. The invention competition that began in 2009 at Georgia Tech has been dubbed "American Idol for nerds."

The team from Fort Valley State University came in first place, with second place and the People's Choice award going to Southern Regional Technical College. Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia also made the finals.

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