Proto-Lin Violins representative Ryon Adams presents his startup's idea at the Sunstone Innovation Challenge on Thursday, April 14, 2022. Courtesy of CSULB.

One strong business plan coming out of Cal State Long Beach has taken a major step toward realization.

The startup Proto-Lin Violins, which is looking to break down barriers of entry for music by making a cheaper way to manufacture and repair violins, won the 12th Sunstone Innovation Challenge last week.

The campus-wide business plan competition seeks to reward concrete and innovative ideas from young entrepreneurs that have been developed over a six-month period.

As the first-place finisher, Proto-Lin Violins won $15,000 and access to business support, including office space and accounting and tax services for a year courtesy of in-kind partners like Keesal Young and Logan, Windes, and Fulwinder and Patton LLP.

Proto-Lin Violins hopes to make the manufacture and repair process of violins more efficient through an injection-mold design that makes replacing broken pieces of the instrument possible. Team representative Ryon Adams brought a 3D prototype to demonstrate at the final pitch challenge on Thursday, April 21.

But the winning startup wasn’t the only team to walk away with a leg up.

Second place winner, The NIL Collective, received $10,000. The business seeks to serve as a marketing agency that will help female athletes take advantage of the new Name, Image, and Likeness rules in collegiate athletics.

And two other finalists—the financial literacy app Unstockable and PAVANAS, which is a concept centered around saving energy with custom designed and engineered tape—took home $5,000 each.

The annual competition, which is the result of a partnership between CSULB’s Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (IIE) and the investment firm Sunstone Management, is a months-long process that oversees the development of the teams’ ideas.

This year, 23 teams submitted letters of intent to enter the competition. Those letters described an initial business idea, and the IIE then worked to pair participants with one of 43 mentors coming from both within and outside of the college.

“The first thing [we do] is to assign them an industry-specific mentor, somebody that can help them understand what the challenges are that they’re going to face,” IIE Director Wade Martin said. “The role of the mentor is to bring that lived experience about running a business starting up.”

Teams are required to be in contact with their mentor at least three times during the challenge, with at least one of those meetings being a review of the first business plan for the challenge. The business plan is the crux of the process, outlining the details of each level of planning and operation, from identifying the value of the startup to detailing the cost and revenue structure of the business.

Is the team covering all the dimensions that a business needs? Did the team members look at the market that they’re trying to enter? Do they understand who their competitors are? These are all questions that Martin said are considered when judges look at the business plans, using a rubric provided by CSULB to determine who is in the best position to get started with bringing an idea to life.

After the fine-tuned business plans were submitted, eight semifinalists were selected to participate in an initial pitch contest on March 10.

The semifinalists were then given a chance to solicit feedback from a set of judges before submitting a revised business plan a week later. Those judges, who are industry experts from a variety of fields, also helped narrow the field to its final stage.

The four finalists were announced at the beginning of April for the final pitch contest held Thursday, where three new judges determined the winner.

The four finalists, though, will also have an opportunity to participate in a larger event that serves as the culmination of the challenge: the Startup Launch Competition, which includes 23 campuses across Southern California on May 6. The inaugural event will be held at Cal State Long Beach but will rotate to another of the 23 campuses yearly.

For Sunstone, which provided the prize money, getting involved in the community is a crucial part of the team’s mission. Sunstone CEO John Keisler said the firm will be sponsoring both the Challenge and Launch Competition for at least the next five years, and hopes to continue the investment for “decades.”

“The research and development that occurs at our CSU and UCs,” Keisler said, “really funds the transformation and the innovation of our economy here in California.”

Christian May-Suzuki

Christian May-Suzuki is a reporter at the Long Beach Business Journal.