Subscription database for dancers pitch wins 2021 IdeaMakers Challenge

Interdisciplinary undergraduate student team pitched the service, which helps performance artists find programs, schools and jobs


By Emma Riglin

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — On March 24, five interdisciplinary teams of undergraduate students pitched their ideas during the final round of the IdeaMakers Challenge. Hosted each year by the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) during Penn State Startup Week sponsored by PNC, the entrepreneurial challenge tasks interdisciplinary student teams with pitching an idea that aims to solve a problem using information technology.

This year’s winning idea was created by team Eclaireur, which means “scout” in French. Group members Sasha Ahrestani, computer science; Robert Fulton, business; and Eugene Ryoo, cybersecurity analytics and operations pitched the concept of a digital subscription service to a database that helps dancers find hundreds of programs, schools and jobs to develop their skills.

The idea came to Fulton, a full-time professional dancer with the Nevada Ballet Theatre, in April 2018 after seeing many of his fellow dancers lose their jobs and struggle to find new opportunities.

“Many were unable to find another job due to their lack of knowledge of companies accepting applications,” said Fulton. “Several of them quit dancing. I thought to myself, ‘Why do people have to individually search for every program they’re interested in? Wouldn’t it be beneficial to have a centralized database where dancers could find exactly what they needed?’ That moment is when Eclaireur came to be.”

Entering Eclaireur into the IdeaMakers Challenge was Ryoo’s idea, after he saw an ad for it a week before the submission deadline.

“[We] didn’t really have any ideas that were fleshed out enough to submit,” said Ryoo. “I had just barely joined the team when I got an email from The College of IST [with information about the competition]. I thought it would be a good opportunity for Eclaireur.”

Ahrestani built Eclaireur’s website “from the ground up” using the Python Django framework, MySQL, a custom Bootstrap front-end framework and Google Maps APIs, among other technologies.

“Although this was a learning experience, my exposure to a variety of programming languages and projects through the College of Engineering improved my ability to understand, pick up quickly and work in all of these areas and languages,” he said. “Many of the core concepts that have been reinforced in my degree played a huge role in the project.”

For their first-place win, the team received a cash prize of $5,000 to continue to improve on their idea. Fulton described their team as “the unicorn of the IdeaMakers projects” in a competition filled with other ideas that mainly targeted environmental issues, and sees a great future for Eclaireur with the help of their competition win.

“Whenever I talk to any dance student or parent, it is astounding to hear the stories of how much time and effort they put into researching and auditioning for programs,” said Fulton. “Eclaireur can already [help them find what they need], or be easily updated to address their scenario.”

Added Ahrestani, “Being able to help fellow artists in their journey by using my non-artistic skills is truly an incredible opportunity. We hope to create real connections with dancers and play a large role in their lives, not just be another website they visit.”

The database currently houses information on more than 170 dance programs, and the team hopes to expand in the future to help other artists such as musicians and visual artists.

The winning idea was selected by Penn State and College of IST alumni Steve Garguilo, class of 2009, founder of Cultivate; and Todd Bacastow, class of 2005, current senior director of strategic growth for Maxar Technologies, who served as the judges for the IdeaMakers Challenge.

“[Eclaireur] had a very clear problem they were solving,” said Garguilo. “They mapped out a customer journey, understood this problem really well and had a working solution that already has some users. They're clearly very passionate about continuing to work on this problem, and I think those factors combined really will set them up for success.”

Added Bacastow, “All of the teams did a really nice job. Every year I look forward to this event, and I am continually impressed with Penn State student entrepreneurs’ creative business ideas and solutions to important problems.”

The IdeaMakers Challenge kicked off in March with 17 cross-University teams submitting applications. That pool was narrowed to 10 teams, which participated in a series of workshops to meet with experts and learn about prototyping and pitching. Then, in the semi-final round, faculty members with entrepreneurial expertise selected the top five teams to move on to the final pitch event.

In addition to the winning team, other finalists included:

  • Nyansapo (2nd place), a mobile app for helping Kenyan students learn outside the classroom. Team members include Adam Karan, engineering science and mechanics; Tanish Rastogi, computer science; Emily Snow, biomedical engineering; Nikki So, biological engineering; and Lauren Werner, biobehavioral health.
  • Recyclio (3rd place), environmental sensor technology to help Kenyan farmers with greenhouse difficulties. Team members include Daniel Fleming, agribusiness management; Cindy Liu, division of undergraduate studies; David Moyer, computer science; Shakay Simpson, management; Sweetalana, biological sciences; and Jinsen Wu, computer science.
  • Dust to Diamonds, a carbon filtration device for motorcycles which combats vehicle pollution in Kenya and uses the leftover carbon to create synthetic diamonds. Team members include Benjamin Burlovic, economics and mechanical engineering; Matt Costanzo; Morgan Keene, mechanical engineering; Zara Meyer, mechanical engineering and social entrepreneurship; and Shannon Ross. Dust to Diamonds also was presented with the Dave Hall Award, given to the team that best exemplifies collaboration and innovation. The award is named for the late dean of the College of IST, who was instrumental in developing Startup Week and the IdeaMakers Challenge.
  • Reach.AI, a software that that analyzes health disparities in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Team members include Kareem Jelks, cybersecurity analytics and operations; and John Keeling, computer science.

More information about the winning team can be found at

At the Penn State Startup Week Student Recognition Reception hosted by Penn State President Eric Barron on Thursday, March 25, the University announced a gift made by Bob and Susan Bardusch to establish an endowment to support the challenge. The event will be named the Bardusch Family IdeaMakers Challenge in honor of the endowment, which will support the competition as well as prizes and experiential opportunities for the winning teams to advance their ideas and professional networks.


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Megan Lakatos