Entrepreneurs

Move over, Mark Zuckerberg. These college start-ups want to be the next big thing

Recess, a media and events company, held a nationwide search for the next big start-up on campuses across the country this week.

Xperii, winners of the Recess pitch finals in Los Angeles. From left to right Daniel Williams, Head of Business Development, Cynthia Chen, Co-founder & CTO and Evan Ehrenberg, Co-founder & CEO.
Photo: Jake Caumeran Photography
Xperii, winners of the Recess pitch finals in Los Angeles. From left to right Daniel Williams, Head of Business Development, Cynthia Chen, Co-founder & CTO and Evan Ehrenberg, Co-founder & CEO.

Dreams can advance well beyond a college dorm room, and Xperii proves it.

On Thursday night in Los Angeles, the start-up won the Recess national pitch competition among some of the country's most innovative college entrepreneurs from a sea of 500 applicants.

Launched by 22-year-old MIT Ph.D. student Evan Ehrenberg and 21-year-old Cynthia Chen, who's currently on leave from Brown University, the company connects individuals looking for paid opportunities and clinical trials with researchers who need subjects.

"This opens so many doors for us — we've received a ton of feedback and have been able to refine our pitch," said Ehrenberg, co-founder and CEO of Xperii. "We will see a lot of opportunities coming our way from investors, partners and even more excitement from potential hires."

Xperii won a full scholarship to Draper University, a residential entrepreneurial program in Silicon Valley that provides attendees with start-up skills, mentorship and more, along with a 30-minute Skype session with venture capitalist Tim Draper.

The journey to Los Angeles for Xperii was made possible by Recess, a media and events company that works with brands like Southwest and Microsoft to help them reach millennials. In addition to facilitating the nationwide pitch competition that Xperii won, Recess puts on a concert series for aspiring college entrepreneurs.

The competition has come full circle: Recess itself was hatched in a college dorm room by then-seniors Jack Shannon and Deuce Thevenow at Indiana University in 2010. The original movement, a college music festival, has evolved into the Recess Music + Ideas festival, which works similarly to a March Madness-style nationwide bracket tournament.

This spring, the festival traveled to 18 campuses in six regions. The top college start-ups advanced to the regional semi-finals, to pitch on stage ahead of performances from artists, including SNBRN and Lil Dicky. Six regional winners, as well as two national wild card bids and two special category winners advanced to the finals in Los Angeles this week for the Recess Field Trip.

"We infused the idea of entrepreneurship and start-ups into our music festival that we were doing, with the mission of finding and identifying young entrepreneurs that were just like us, building a business in their dorm room," Shannon said. "We wanted to give them the same opportunities we had to turn that into a real business."

The two additional Recess finalists, Penn & Hunt and The Space Research Company, also won a 30-minute Skype session with venture capitalist Draper, with giants like Tesla and Box in his portfolio. Penn & Hunt, from the University of Pennsylvania, is a direct-to-consumer couch company, similar to mattress start-up Casper. The Space Exploration Company is out of University of Colorado Boulder and provides a commercial service for space-based research in biology leveraging 3-D printing, helping researchers get their projects into space at lower costs.

Thevenow and Shannon got the initial idea after realizing there were little resources to attract investors to grow a business in Bloomington, Indiana. Upon graduating, they shot billionaire investor Mark Cuban a blind email and he became Recess' first investor. Recess and Cuban declined to share the amount the "Shark Tank" judge invested. Today they've raised just more than $1 million in funding.

Thevenow says they "very much consider themselves a startup, helping other startups."

Since launching, Recess has gotten more than 1,000 pitch submissions, and the teams that have come through the events have raised more than $12 million to date from investors including Cuban, Draper and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.

"I see it when I am on college campuses — students bring a tremendous amount of passion and energy and intelligence to anything they put their mind to," said Randy Sloan, SVP and CIO of Southwest Airlines, a judge at this year's competition. "I think getting them to focus on the problems we have in the world, we have a country and we have in business — if we can harness that from them, we're all the better for it."

Disclosure: CNBC owns the exclusive off-network cable rights to "Shark Tank," which features Mark Cuban as a judge.