Wolff Entrepreneurship Competition Crowns Startup That Brings Emotional-Coping Skills to Elementary-Age Kids

The Wolff competition awarded almost $60,000 in funds for UConn-affiliated startups

Emily Wicks, Gary Wolff, and Sandy Chafouleas pose with the $25,000 check following the Wolff New Venture Competition. Wicks and Chafouleas are the founders of Feel Your Best Self, which won the top award. Photo by Alex Syphers/Defining Studios

Emily Wicks, Gary Wolff, and Sandy Chafouleas pose with the $25,000 check following the Wolff New Venture Competition. Wicks and Chafouleas are the founders of Feel Your Best Self, which won the top award. Photo by Alex Syphers/Defining Studios

The entrepreneurs who created Feel Your Best Self, a startup focused on social-emotional learning for elementary school-aged students, won the highly coveted Wolff New Venture Competition and a $25,000 prize on Tuesday night.

Arguably, though, it is hundreds of young students who will be the ultimate beneficiaries of the award, as it will allow Feel Your Best Self to grow significantly and reach more youngsters, teachers and guidance counselors.

Some 75 percent of students suffer from at least one bout of severe anxiety in school, says Sandy Chafouleas, a school psychologist and Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor at the Neag School of Education.

“When kids don’t feel well, they don’t do well in school, in sports, or in life,’’ she says. “And it’s not just a few kids. It is a lot of kids!’’

Chafouleas and Emily Wicks, a manager of operations and collections at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at UConn, devised the Feel Your Best Self program together during the pandemic.

Using videos that depict three puppet friends, Feel Your Best Self offers coping strategies, helps children understand their emotions, and fosters connections with others. Unlike some of the other 85 programs on the market, Feel Your Best Self is easy to use and aims for a relaxed, creative, and joyful learning experience. Chafouleas and Wicks also have evidence that students use the strategies long after the lessons end.

Wicks says the demand for Feel Your Best Self has been incredible and the company will use the Wolff winnings to expand its printed materials, including books and supplementary materials for adults. They also want to expand their puppet-making kits for children.

Launched over a year ago, Feel Your Best Self has won a 2023 Kids Screen Award and four Telly Awards for TV and web content.

“Neither of us ever thought about creating a business. It truly grew from the public demand,’’ Chafouleas says. “Winning the Wolff award is surreal. It is a wonderful acknowledgement that what we are doing can be an important contributor to promoting emotional well-being for kids and their caregivers.’’

Almost $60,000 in Startup Funding

The Wolff competition awarded almost $60,000 in funds for UConn-affiliated startups on Tuesday. The event is the pinnacle entrepreneurship challenge at the School of Business, open to startups that have already competed and placed in previous challenges.

Jennifer Mathieu, executive director of the School’s Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, which has mentored all six competitors this year, says it is exciting to watch entrepreneurs turn their dreams into reality.

“We live in such a fast-paced and ever-evolving world where we are teaching students skills for careers and industries that do not yet exist. I believe that the skills in entrepreneurship and leadership transcend any one point in time, any industry, any one business model, or team. These lessons are important skills that support the individual not just in business, but in life,’’ she says.

“These six entrepreneurs have proven their desire to learn, have shown their resilience in the face of challenges, and have utilized the resources available to them to bring their idea into reality. It is not lost on me the role we have at CCEI to cultivate these skills and to inspire the next generation of innovators that will make the world a better place,’’ she adds.

Dean John A. Elliott says entrepreneurship is in the DNA of the School of Business. He thanked the Wolff family, who established the initial award, for its enduring dedication to entrepreneurship at UConn. Elliott noted that the School is offering new and expanded entrepreneurship courses this year.

The competition was judged by four highly qualified experts including: Laura Dinan Haber, innovation brand director at Nassau Re/Imagine; Casey Pickett, managing director of incubation at ClimateHaven; alumnus Pete Sena ’05 (BUS), founder of Digital Surgeons; and Kwesi Quaye, partner at Fairview Capital.

Other event winners included:

Swipestorm: The Santander Second Place Prize and a $10,000 Award

Nathan Capatano ’24 (CLAS) has extensive experience running a Chick-fil-A restaurant, and a passion for solving problems. The combination led him to create “Swipestorm’’ a startup which offers a suite of software specifically designed for quick-service restaurants.

Already 39 Chick-fil-A are using his mobile app, called Restore, to track and resolve customer complaints. Previously, most stores just used a binder and sheets of paper to keep tabs on errors, he said. With an average of 2,000 customers a day, it was an inefficient process.

“Everybody who uses it love it,’’ he says. “They all say, ‘Why didn’t this exist before. It’s a great solution to an old problem; an easy sell.’’

Capatano plans to expand his software to additional restaurants and is already working on new services, including shift management.

Andros: The Prime Materials Recovery Third Place Prize and a $7,500 Award

The production of ammonia, now an essential part of farming, is one of the dirtiest chemical processes in the world. But UConn Ph.D. student Laron Burrows ’25 (ENG) –who has devoted his professional life to researching and promoting renewable energy—has a plan to replace the process, that creates 2 percent of the Earth’s CO2 emissions.

“This is an important challenge that keeps me up at night,’’ Burrows says. “There isn’t a real solution to decarbonize these industries yet. It is a really difficult problem, and a solution would be very valuable for the world.’’

Burrows’ startup has developed a new reactor, based on the principle of chemical looping, that is smaller, more efficient and less expensive than traditional methods. It can be set up near large farms, offering both supply stability and convenience. Most importantly, it produces no CO2 emissions. His work has attracted attention at MIT and beyond.

Mud Rat: The Mark and Jamie Summers Innovation Award and a $5,000 Prize

Amelia Martin ’23, ’25 (CAHNR) has always been an enthusiastic environmentalist. But a trip to Haiti in 2019 ignited a decision that profoundly changed course of her life. She visited a beach there that was strewn with garbage and debris and the image haunted her. “I never felt so strongly about anything in my life,’’ she says.

Determined to do her part to reduce pollution, she turned to an industry that she knew well: surfboards. She began to think about ways to make them more eco-friendly. The traditional core of a surfboard is made of Styrofoam, which not only produces toxic dust, but takes 500 years to decompose.

Martin’s new company, called Mud Rat, is creating an innovative and organic core, using mycelium, the tough root of mushrooms. The fast-growing plant can produce enough material for a board in just a week. Martin says surfing has grown in popularity since the COVID pandemic. She wants to launch her business within a year, initially selling in America before branching out abroad.

Puure: The FML CPAs Audience Choice Award and a $5,000 Prize

MBA student Christina Phillips ’25 (MBA) was alarmed when she discovered that toxic and dangerous chemicals are used in the manufacturing of women’s bras and underwear. Chemicals like formaldehyde, pesticides, petroleum, dyes, parabens and “forever chemicals’’ have no place in intimate clothing, she believes.

With her lingerie startup “Puure’’ she plans to produce a line of organic, non-toxic women’s underwear and tap into a $6 billion market. She plans to launch within a year.

Her target customer is health-conscious Black women between the ages of 25 and 45 who are trying to optimize their reproductive health and steer away from environmental risks.

Phillips has a strong background professional in textiles and retail and has owned a clothing business in the past.

“Everything I do is very intentional, even down to the tags,’’ she says. “I want to partner with factories that are not only producing organic goods but are practicing fair labor, are committed to sustainability, and are not solving one problem while creating another.’’

Particle-N: The Baystate Financial Disruption Award and a $5,000 Prize

Startup Particle-N is pioneering technology that will significantly reduce the amount of precious metals needed for catalysts and slash costs for many industries. The company is preparing to enter the $19 billion, global precious-metal catalyst market and to support clean-energy industry in Connecticut.

Precious metals are used to convert catalyst material for industries including oil and gas, hydrogen, and even automobile catalytic converters. By using core-shell technology, Particle-N can coat an inexpensive, environmentally-friendly material with precious metals, still achieving the desired reactions but reducing the use of scarce precious metal by up to 70 percent.

“I enjoy solving problems, says Al Kasani ’27 (ENG), a Ph.D. Candidate in chemical engineering and serial entrepreneur. He is joined by teammates Reiner Reichenberger ’24 (BUS) and Michael Dunn ’24 (ENG). “I also have a great team with sharp minds. I tell people: ‘You’re going to hear about us!’ ’’

Professor Says Companies Have Promising Futures

Professor Wayne Bragg, who serves as a mentor for the entrepreneurship programs, says the teams were all very different in their missions but similar in their exponential growth from May to October. He says their futures look promising.

“Sometimes you meet entrepreneurs who think they know it all,’’ he says. “These teams really wanted to learn, which made it so rewarding. I hope they will all follow their passion and continue moving forward.’’