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Princeton University Annual Demo Day showcases student startups

Originally published on Princeton University website by Susan DeSantis for the Office of Engineering Communications

The HomeWorks team had one question for the audience: How many of you feel safe in your communities? Nervous laughter followed as most people tentatively raised their hands.

That’s not always the reality for the low-income students Homeworks wants to serve.

“It’s just insane how much of a difference there is in the crime rate in Princeton compared to Trenton,” said Natalie Tung of Princeton’s Class of 2018 and the executive director of HomeWorks, a nonprofit working to open a boarding program to assist students in Trenton. “We’re just 20 minutes away,” said Tung, who is majoring in English

The five-member Homeworks team was one of six participants making presentations on Aug. 15 and 16 at Princeton University’s sixth-annual Demo Day. The event offered teams of students the opportunity to present the results of a summer of work in the eLab program at the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education’s Entrepreneurial Hub in Princeton.

“Over the course of 10 weeks, our teams have worked exceptionally hard, and they’re excited to showcase their ideas for you,” said Cornelia Huellstrunk, executive director of the Keller Center, as she kicked off the event.

This was the fourth time AppNexus, an online advertising firm that was founded by Brian O’Kelley, a member of the Class of 1999, hosted the gathering at its Manhattan headquarters. It took place in a small auditorium that AppNexus describes as its “Razzle Dazzle” space and had all the trappings of a Silicon Valley product launch. It followed presentations held the day before at Princeton.

Each team presented a two-minute video, gave an eight-minute pitch and fielded five minutes of questions from an expert panel Wednesday night. The experts included Erich Sternberg of the Class of 1990, CEO of AlwaysCare Benefits, Inc.; Joy Marcus of the Class of 1983, executive vice president of GM Digital Video at Condé Nast; Danielle Cohen-Shohet of the Class of 2012, CEO and co-founder of GlossGenius; and Jonathan Askin, founder and director of the Brooklyn Law Incubator & Policy Clinic.

The students were prepared to respond to the challenging questions. They appealed to the investors in the audience to provide capital and in-kind contributions so that their companies would be able to fund research and continue to grow. They also contended that their various enterprises would help society in such ways as serving low-income residents or preserving the environment.

During the 10 weeks the teams spent in the eLab, they worked with mentors and advisers who helped them shape their visions. They also attended a three-day boot camp, workshops, meetings and lectures together, although their ideas were dramatically different — ranging from a company that wants to provide electricity to underserved markets to a company that sells electric outboard motors to replace traditional gas engines for small boats.


HomeWorks admitted five teenage girls to its pilot boarding program in Trenton this summer. The teenagers — HomeWorks calls them scholars — attended Trenton public schools’ summer classes and returned to the home each afternoon to participate in workshops on such subjects as time management before taking part in fun activities like dance classes.

“Boarding schools are expensive and not accessible to low-income students,” said Elijah Sumners, the community outreach officer for Homeworks who is a native of Trenton and a Rutgers University political science major.

The scholars live at the home from Sunday night to Friday morning and return to their families at the end of the school day on Friday. On Sunday night, their families are invited to the home for dinner.

HomeWorks’ goal is to open a full-year program for 10 high school freshmen, all young women in Trenton in the fall of 2018. They have raised more than $110,000 in cash and supplies but said they need another $214,000 to fund the full-year program.

“I think we’re all speechless and so thank you for that,” said feedback panelist Marcus, after the presentation.
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