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Jan. 13, 2016

Zoe Zappitell and Brittney Urich: Designing Connections

Jan. 13, 2016

Zoe Zappitell is a junior majoring in professional writing in the College of Arts and Letters. Brittney Urich is a senior also majoring in professional writing.

In January 2015, Zoe Zappitell texted Brittney Urich: “I want to make an app that helps improve the lives of college students.” 

Urich’s positive response was nearly instantaneous.

“We immediately began brainstorming the problems that students endure in their lives,” Urich says. “We decided that making friends while staying safe were two of the biggest challenges for students on the Michigan State University campus.”

The result is Conecter, a mobile application created by Urich and Zappitell that connects college students with others on their campus to eat, study, work out and have fun together. Urich and Zappitell expect a tentative launch date for iPhone of Feb. 5 at MSU. An Android version is also planned.Conecter screen

“In college, it can be hard to find friends with similar schedules and interests,” Urich says. “Conecter helps students safely connect with friends on their campus. Conecter also recognizes how important it is to explore your interests and passions on campus. Through viewing the groups in the 'campus' page, students can see where they can get involved.”

Urich and Zappitell say the app’s development process has been long, exciting and eye opening, but feel they have something that is both needed and unique in the marketplace. Compared to other apps, the Conecter's major points of difference include:

  • The FREE Conecter app is the only college-specific mobile application that creates a safe, platonic, on-the-go place for students to meet. Only those with an email address can access the MSU platform.
  • Conecter is the only mobile application that involves connection to multiple campus groups and organizations. Within the 'campus' page, Conecter allows students to follow groups and organizations to get notifications about upcoming events and meetings.
  • Conecter involves events happening on the same day they're posted, and is the only mobile application that specifically promotes healthy collaboration by enticing students to study and workout with others.

“In using the Conecter app, first you introduce yourself, including your class, where you like to eat, how you like to exercise, what classes you’re taking, and some of your interests, and it creates an algorithm,” Urich says. “So, if I say I enjoy doing yoga, I’m more likely to get yoga events, and not events about kickboxing. It truly makes it a more personalized experience.”

“Initially, we sketched out some rough prototypes, and brought them to our first mentor, Jeff Grabill (chair of the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures and associate provost for teaching, learning and technology),” says Zappitell, “Jeff said that he was aware of the problem college students have making friends, and that to truly understand how to solve it, we needed to start by talking to students. We learned that students usually want to eat with someone, study with someone, work out with someone, and most of all, they want to have fun,” Urich says.

“So, if I want to go to the gym, I’m more likely to work out harder if I have Zoe running next to me the entire time.”

“Our first ‘pitch’ was to Paul Jaques, director of Spartan Innovations, and Ken Szymusiak, managing director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation.” Urich says. “We left realizing that we didn’t know how to properly pitch our idea, and that we had a great deal of work ahead of us.”

Says Zappitell, “We applied for the Creativity Exploratory’s Pathways to Entrepreneurship Initiative, and were accepted into the program. This was a huge milestone in our journey with Conecter."

Then, in Summer 2015, Urich and Zappitell say, everything started to become more real.

“We attended weekly meetings for the Pathways to Entrepreneurship program,” Urich says, “and began thinking critically about how we were going to turn this idea into a reality. Zoe Zappitell and Brittany Urich at TechweekIn June, we were accepted into Techweek Chicago’s Launch Competition, where we pitched our idea — with the help of 96 high-fidelity prototypes — to thousands of attendees. We returned to campus with a larger, more substantial network as well as increased drive due to all of the positive response."

The rest of the summer was a whirlwind of meetings and pitches that led Urich and Zappitell to Venturit, a development firm in East Lansing.

“Our first meeting ended with the realization that, if we wanted to partner with Venturit to develop our app, we needed to form a company and find funding,” Zappitell says. “That took us a couple of months.”

Urich continues, “The College of Arts and Letters was the first real stepping stone for us, and the first people who believed in us. They gave us $6,000 to help build the mobile application, and have been with us every step of the way.”

Zappitell nods, saying, “Spartan Innovations has also been a huge help, and gave us $2,000. Michigan State University Federal Credit Union gave us a grant of $1,000, and various competitions like the Pathways of Entrepreneurship (part of CAL’s Creativity Exploratory) provided $500, putting us at more than $9,000 of the $14,000 we needed.”

With initial funding in place, and after registering as an LLC in the state of Michigan in September 2015, the two formed their partnership with Venturit, and development began.

“Just to finally have it in our hands, and be able to say, ‘Look,” and be able to show it to people, has been fantastic.” Urich concluded.

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On Twitter: @conecterapp 

Reprinted with permission from the College of Arts and Letters