Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Brian Roth
GCU News Bureau
The first conversation between most college freshmen probably includes talk of where to get good food on campus.
Kevin Vega and Suman Dangol are a little different. Within minutes of their first encounter at Grand Canyon University, they crafted a plan to create a business that delivers food on campus.
That’s how LopesEat was born. Friday at the Canyon Ventures Center, it came of age when they became the first freshmen to win GCU’s 9-year-old entrepreneurial competition, the Canyon Challenge.
Second place, worth $1,500, went to WavesLock, a device that aims to prevent the theft of skateboards. Rumble, which seeks to boost local musical artists through competition akin to a tournament, earned $1,000 for third place.
The $2,500 first prize will enable LopesEat to launch right away, with beta testing to the four residence halls in The Grove. And to think it has been only six months since Vega and Dangol met in Ocotillo Hall, where they are next-door neighbors.
“Coming to GCU, I had no idea they would be this supportive in my business ventures,” said Vega, who grew up 6 miles from downtown Los Angeles. “We have an office in Canyon Ventures, and we’re 18. Just being able to say that and being able to say that we won this competition and we’re starting our company …”
Dangol, from Ventura, Calif., chimed in: “It’s incredible, honestly. What other 18-year-old can say they’re about to hire lots of kids?”
And what other 18-year-olds have an initial conversation that goes something like this:
Vega: “I’m a major in entrepreneurship.”
Dangol: “Well, that’s my minor.”
“Cool! I want to make this thing on campus called LopesEat that delivers food to students.”
“No way! I’m a computer science major. I know how to code.”
“OK, let’s make an app!”
From there, they took their idea to GCU’s Innovation, Development & Entrepreneurship Association (IDEA Club), which loved it and brought it to Canyon Ventures Director Robert Vera, who loved it and arranged for the proper mentoring.
Pretty soon, they were working alongside far more experienced entrepreneurs in the new GCU facility that provides free rent and many other perks in return for hiring students.
“The serendipity – that’s what we love and that’s what all these co-working spaces are about,” said Tim Kelley, Assistant Professor for Entrepreneurship and Economics in the Colangelo College of Business and the supervisor of the Canyon Challenge. “That’s what dorm life is about. That’s what the campus community is about.”
And when did he first learn about LopesEat?
“Right out of the gate because they started pretty strong and just went ahead and did it, to some extent, hacking the system. That popped on everybody’s radar, like, ‘Oh my God, what are these kids doing? How is it that they literally got this service up and running right out of the gate?’”
Not only did they do it quickly, they came to the Canyon Challenge with a good presentation and good marketing. They positioned a group of students in white “LopesEat” T-shirts next to them and had food delivered to emcee Caleb Duarte, and at the end of the presentation their accomplices tossed T-shirts into the crowd.
Put it all together, and the three judges – Jennifer Schrader, President, Chief Operating Officer and co-founder of the event’s sponsor, Caliber; Sharon Hwang, Chief Operating Officer of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council; and SquarePlanet founder Brian Burkhart – found it irresistible.
LopesEat stood out because it has the potential of two business opportunities – the on-campus offering, for $3.99 per delivery, and a proprietary security function that eventually could be sold. But there was something else the judges noticed.
“Their ingenuity, their drive, their energy,” Schrader said. “Even if this particular business didn’t work out, we thought they could quickly transform that into something that is incredibly sellable. We thought that their winnings would take them the furthest the fastest.”
The word Kelley used for the security function was “gigantic.” It’s a bar code that’s almost invisible to the naked eye and wraps around the user’s meal plan bar code, making it almost impossible to copy.
Equally gigantic is the LopesEat founders’ plan to employ students as well as help their peers save time when they’re hungry. Vega and Dangol are looking at tapping into already available on-campus cameras that show how long the lines are at the various eateries and using artificial intelligence to measure how many minutes each line actually will take.
None of this would have happened without an infusion of the Canyon Ventures inspiration, an extension of what has been created in the 10 Canyon Challenges. The event was expanded to twice a year starting in 2019-20.
“So proud of the entrepreneurial culture that Tim Kelley and his startup team have created for students,” CCOB Dean Dr. Randy Gibb said. “This is not just a CCOB event, but a GCU-wide opportunity for all students. And it is perfect to host it at Canyon Ventures to serve as motivation for student-startups to get in-revenue and take-up space in our incubator.”
The audience Friday included a large group of high school students visiting campus through the Discover GCU program. If there were any would-be entrepreneurs among them, surely they noticed that Vega and Dangol are barely older than they are. This could be them next year.
“I love it when the students at any age realize that they can go after solving problems, feel empowered and make it happen,” Kelley said. “Why not?”
It’s food for thought.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].
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