YSU Students Present ‘Really Great Ideas’ at Penguin Shark Tank

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Entrepreneurship is alive and well at Youngstown State University – even after the young business people had to swim with the sharks.

Six students competed Thursday evening in Penguin Shark Tank, a pitch competition made possible through contributions from the Burton D. Morgan Foundation. 

The young entrepreneurs, divided into business ideas and established business categories, pitched to four business professionals: Leonard Fisher, keynote speaker for the event and chairman of the board of Handel’s Ice Cream and Yogurt; Mara Cunningham, owner/operator of Yo! Crash Mobile Rage Room; Barb Ewing, CEO of the Youngstown Business Incubator; and Danny Catullo, vice president, e-commerce at PPX Hospitality, Legal Sea Foods, Smith & Wollensky, Strega Italiano.

The pitch came with requests for funding. Ty Stricko won both the $500 Fan Favorite award, selected by audience members at the event, and $3,500 for the grand prize in the established business category. His business, which he’s been running out of his bedroom since last year, is Stricksportscards LLC.

John Barnyk won the grand prize and $7,500 in the business idea category. He wants to start Steel City Armorers, making and selling high quality costume and replica armor at lower costs than what’s available now.

Four entrepreneurs and business people served as judges, or sharks, at the Penguin Shark Tank competition. They are, from left, Leonard Fisher, chairman of the board of Handel’s Ice Cream and Yogurt; Mara Cunningham, owner/operator of Yo! Crash Mobile Rage Room; Barb Ewing, CEO of the Youngstown Business Incubator; and Danny Catullo, vice president, e-commerce at PPX Hospitality, Legal Sea Foods, Smith & Wollensky, Strega Italiano.

Ewing said she’s thrilled with what the students presented.

“We are just so happy to see entrepreneurship happening at YSU – kids with some really great ideas springing up,” she said. 

The students are looking at establishing not only their own companies but new industries, Ewing said, adding that she’s excited about that.

Stricko, of Canfield, plans to use the money for rent and advertising. 

“What I do is sell sports cards,” he said. And he uses TikTok to do it. He may expand to other apps to sell his products, too.

He credits his energy for his success. He earned about $33,000 in profit last year and puts all of it back into his business.

“The energy is what makes me different from other people,” Stricko said. “I feel like it gives people a safe space to be in there.”

He’s in his first year at YSU, studying business management.

Barnyk, of Harmony, Pa., is in his second year at YSU, and he’s studying electrical engineering and computer science. He got interested in 3D printing and additive manufacturing when he was in middle school. He also considers himself an artist.

“I never really had a way to directly monetize it before,” he said. “The opportunity of the [Penguin] Shark Tank came up. One of my advisers at the [Excellence Training Center], Cynthia Manofsky, was running it and recommended me to apply, and I said, ‘I guess I’ll try something.’”

The majority of the money will go into equipment costs, with some allocated for office space. He wants to sell both online and in person.

“The two real big places that I really want to tackle are shows, like Comicon and different conventions, and I want to reach out to local businesses, local game stores, local comic stores, those kinds of places,” Barnyk said.

The other competitors in the business idea category were Bokka Reddy, who pitched Beyond Books, a real-time simulation tool for interactive learning, and Cole Burnett, whose idea, Floraguard, is a probiotic hand scrub for surgeons.

In the established business category, Emma Courtwright, owner of Alice’s Spell Shop, sought funding for resin jewelry to encase cremains of pets and loved ones. Nate Gostey’s company is Etherea, which sells high quality jewelry that is sustainable and ethically sourced.

Fisher, the keynote speaker for the event, bought Handel’s Ice Cream from Alice Handel in 1984. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he moved to Youngstown in 1975. Handel’s now has 135 locations, with 30 more expected this year.

He cautioned the young entrepreneurs to steer clear of negative people. “Don’t let anyone stop you from following your dreams,” Fisher said.

Fisher also donated Handel’s ice cream for attendees at the event.

This marked the second year for Penguin Shark Tank and Jackie Ruller, director of the YSU Excellence Training Center, after an adviser for the YSU Honors College requested a tour of the ETC for a YSU business administration student.

Ruller explained that the student, Elly Volz, was thinking of transferring to another school because she didn’t think YSU offered what she was looking for. 

“Her goal was/is to have her own jewelry business, and while she could get a solid business background here, she wasn’t learning anything about making jewelry,” Ruller said in an email.

Upon seeing the equipment and tools at the ETC, Volz opted to stay at YSU. She was hired as a student-worker at the center and then decided to pursue an associate degree in mechanical engineering technology.

“Because she was interested in starting her own business, I reached out to contacts I had at the Burton D. Morgan Foundation to see if there was any funding available to help Elly with her business,” Ruller said in the email. 

She was urged to apply for microgrant funding and was awarded $10,000. The money was used for the first Penguin Shark Tank in April 2023. Volz won the grand prize last year.

“We decided to do this because we wanted to get the word out to the YSU student entrepreneurs that funding was available,” Ruller said. “We thought that by holding a big event, we would garner more attention. Students have so much information coming at them all of the time.It is tough to break through.”

Because the event was so successful, the foundation provided another $20,000 for microgrants that had to be distributed by the end of last year. Both YSU students and alumni were recipients of the microgrants.

The Burton D. Morgan Foundation also committed another $10,000 for the 2024 Penguin Shark Tank and have made the same commitment for the 2025 event.

YBI also contributed to the prize money from a Small Business Association grant for the competition. Chandler Fiffick, director of the YBI Evolve Technology Program, and Daniel J. Gisser, CEO of Tillerline Associates LLC, volunteered as mentors to the competition participants.

Pictured at top: From left are Penguin Shark Tank competitors Ty Stricko, Emma Courtwright, Nate Gostey, Bokka Reddy, Cole Burnett and John Barnyk.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.