Senior Christian Harsha ’23 (second from right) and his team make their pitch at the European Innovation Academy this summer.
In an atrium filled with big business ideas, Christian Harsha’s was remarkably simple.
The Eckerd College senior management student from Marriottsville, Maryland, wanted to design and sell reusable on-the-go eating utensils with a novel quick-wash container cup.
“It came to me when we were eating in the cafeteria [during COVID restrictions], and the compostable utensils were breaking in my food,” Christian says. “Those recyclable utensils are made of some very precious and expensive materials. I thought it might be better to have my own utensils that I could wash fairly easily.”
That idea, a functional design and a solid pitch earned Christian and his international team of college entrepreneurs a place among the 10 Top Teams at the European Innovation Academy held in Porto, Portugal, from July 17–August 5. EIA gathers up to 500 students from around the world annually and asks them to pitch an idea to one another to form teams, refine the idea and then pitch the final product to venture capitalists. Along the way, students are mentored by faculty and professionals, and the top teams receive financial support and professional mentoring for continuing their company toward official launch.
The Utensoul prototype
Christian is the third Eckerd student to place in the 10 Top Teams in the past three EIA competitions and is the first Eckerd student to bring an idea to EIA that placed in the top teams.
“We are proud of Christian,” says Associate Professor of International Business and Chair of the Comparative Cultures Collegium Sandra Graça, DBA. “He spearheaded his entrepreneurial idea, Utensoul, with a diverse team at the European Innovation Academy and placed at the top 10 out of approximately 80 teams.”
Quite impressive when you consider he almost didn’t bring the idea to Portugal. Christian had always wanted to study abroad—even as a high school student researching college engineering programs. Visiting engineering schools in the Northeast felt much different from what he had hoped for.
“The programs were not really flexible on the classes you could take, and I wasn’t going to be able to do [any] hands-on engineering until my junior year, let alone study abroad,” Christian recalls.
Toward the end of his college search, he came to visit his sister, Alexandra Harsha ’22, at Eckerd and loved what he heard from faculty about the flexibility and hands-on nature of classes. He fell in love with the campus and its people, deciding to major in management with focuses in applied mathematics and finance when the time came. Dreams of studying abroad, stifled by the pandemic, were reawakened during a visit to Assistant Professor of Finance Robert Jozkowski’s office during Fall 2021. Jozkowski said that all students in Graça’s Marketing: A New Global Venture course would be traveling to Portugal over the summer. That was all Christian needed to hear.
Christian Harsha ’23
During the second class meeting during the spring, Christian pitched Utensoul, to Graça’s delight. “She described Utensoul as a ‘hot and sexy’ idea because it had scalable business fundamentals, strong consumer appeal and had environmental activism at its core,” Christian says.
After a semester of formulating other ideas, he almost brought another one forward at the opening pitch event in Portugal. “Utensoul most likely wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the support and encouragement from my friends from Eckerd who were in Porto with me,” he remembers. “People would come up and ask questions our first day at the University of Porto, and I picked the teammates who criticized my idea the most to be a part of the group.”
The Eckerd College contingent that attended the competition included (left to right): Professor Sandra Graça, Sara Durbin ’24, Marcus Marrufo ’23, Melinda Blum ’22, Gillian Probert ’23, Angel Brady ’23, Christian Harsha ’23, Lilian Koslowski ’24, Joseph Salcedo ’23 and Professor Robert Jozkowski.
Christian’s final team—André Neves “Neves” from the PolyTechnic Institute of Porto, Ana Presa from the University of Porto, Corentin Marisy from the Université de Technologie de Compiègne and Neev Lamba from the University of Michigan—fought through challenges and “brutal” professional criticism to finish a complete start-up pitch deck, which included their fully functioning CAD prototype. Two teammates even contracted COVID during the three-week event but still managed to complete the work. In the end, the Utensoul team made the decision to let the final pitch be delivered by Neev Lamba, a sophomore at the University of Michigan.
“He did an amazing job,” Christian says, “… I was one of the only CEOs who did not give the final pitch. We were a stronger team because of this extreme trust that we had in each other to do a stellar job.”
When the winners were announced, Christian was sitting with his teammates in front of some of his Eckerd classmates and his faculty leaders Graça and Jozkowski. The shock temporarily glued him to the seat as his professors fist-pumped behind him. His fundamental idea hadn’t changed from February to August, and it was deemed worthy of further investment.
“I really think I just got a great team, and we weren’t worried about the result. We were there to have the best experience—and we did,” Christian says. “We spent many days working late and listening to music Neev had heard in a club the night before. It was amazing.”