Air Force Academy team wins invention honor
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This team composed of cadets from the Air Force Academy was honored for its inventiveness with an app that could revolutionize how college students do their laundry and kick off an industry.

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Five senior cadets at the Air Force Academy think they have solved two universal problems of college students with one innovative mobile application and platform.

Their performance at a recent entrepreneurial competition in Minneapolis confirms the invention, U-Wash — which connects students who want to earn a little extra money to students who want to save a little extra time by not washing their clothes — is on a roll.

“Personally, I hate doing laundry, so that’s my motivation behind U-Wash,” said Jack Smith from Richfield, Ohio, one of five founding members of the company and its chief operating officer.

Joe Johnson of Waterford, Calif., company communications officer, is on the flip side: He doesn’t like sitting around doing nothing at school.

“Making money on the side is huge for us (college students),” he said, adding he thinks it’s great to be able to “get passive income by doing things other people don’t want to do.”

The idea, conceived by Chief Executive Officer Ryan McKenna of Deptford Township, N.J., qualified as one of 25 finalists from a nationwide pool of 100 applicants in the Schulze Entrepreneurship Challenge, one of the nation’s largest undergraduate competitions.

The team advanced to the all-expenses-paid final round in Minneapolis in mid-April. The three-day festival at the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship was funded by the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation and awarded $250,000.

After a 15-minute spiel to judges, in a format similar to the television show “Shark Tank,” U-Wash placed fifth. That won team members $10,000.

“We were ecstatic,” McKenna said. “We were up against companies that were 2 to 8 years old, and we were 3 months old.”

Demerits came because “we haven’t made a dollar yet,” he added.

The U-Wash launch is on the horizon at colleges across Colorado. Team members will use the $10,000 prize to finish the peer-to-peer application development, McKenna said, and purchase its first “smart locker” for transactions on campuses.

Think Uber or Airbnb for the everyday chore of doing laundry.

Students needing laundry services and students willing to wash clothes connect on the U-Wash app. Initial pricing is $10 per load, and $12 for premium detergent and fabric softener. After placing an order, students put their dirty laundry in a secure smart locker unit situated in their dormitory, and the laundry-doer picks up the load, washes and dries it, and returns the clothes to the locker folded and looking like new.

“Our vision is to help students with happier lives and put money in their pockets,” said corporate marketing manager Sean McGinty, from St. Louis.

College students spend an average of 2.5 hours per week doing laundry, market research revealed. The team polled more than 1,000 students from 12 colleges and universities.

“We determined the problem exists, as 75 percent of respondents said they are strained for time and would use that additional time productively,” McGinty said. “That validated our business model would work.”

Forty-three percent of respondents said they’d spend $10 or more to have the service, and 72 percent said they would want to become operators.

The goal is to have one smart locker system per dorm, McKenna said.

The long-term vision is to expand to apartment complexes in inner cities and on military bases, McGinty said.

“It’s a really profitable market,” said Chief Finance Officer Caleb Stuffle of San Diego. “We’re looking at expanding to simple chores, such as students changing oil for other students.”

Product development for the five cadets, all management majors at the academy, came through a capstone class assignment.

The team started in January and worked day and night, putting “as much work into it as possible,” McKenna said.

Although they’ll scatter after their May 30 graduation, some going to flight school, others to overseas assignments, they say they will continue working rolling out the product.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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