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Shashank Kumar, UT Dallas CS Student, Wins 3rd Place at Blackstone LaunchPad Pitch Competition 

Out of more than 130 student entrepreneurial teams from schools across the Blackstone LaunchPad network, one UT Dallas student impressed the judges on the mainstage of the 2022 Startup Grind Global Conference. 

Shashank Vinay Kumar, founder of Bonsai and UT Dallas CS student, placed third, winning $10,000. Through Bonsai, Shashank hopes to revolutionize the world of customer engagement through an AI-tool that automates and assists customer support teams. 

Customer service requests often take longer than necessary because the agent doesn’t know the answer, and has to spend time searching through the company’s database to find the right information. Bonsai’s AI-system searches a company’s database to find the right answer, reducing a 20-minute ticket to two minutes. 

“We are thrilled to be the third-place winners and share Bonsai’s mission at the Startup Grind Global Conference! We are grateful for the opportunities provided by the Blackstone LaunchPad and hope our journey inspires future young entrepreneurs. I’d like to thank my co-founders, Jatin Kumar and Pritivi Rajkumar, and the amazing team at the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UT Dallas for their unwavering support and commitment to fostering the next generation of entrepreneurs,” said Shashank, a computer science junior in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science. 

“We were so impressed by the creativity of the ideas and the quality of presentations at this year’s Blackstone LaunchPad Annual Pitch Competition,” said Blackstone Charitable Foundation Board Chair Amy Stursberg. “It’s inspiring to see such diversity of ideas and commitment to solving problems through entrepreneurship.” 

Akeem and Marquee were one of five student teams selected to pitch in a live final round, after a month of coaching from Blackstone LaunchPad ambassadors. The finals were held live on the mainstage of the Startup Grind Global Conference in Silicon Valley, California. 

The all-woman panel of judges included Kelly Burton, Executive Director at Black Innovation Alliance, Kelsey Davis, Founder & CEO of CLLCTVE and Syracuse LaunchPad Alum, Christine Feng, Senior Managing Director at Blackstone, and Amy Stursberg. 

These judges assessed finalists on both the quality of their pitch and their investability – how viable the business model was, how innovative the idea, the size of the market, existing traction, and the strength of the team and founder-market fit. Over $50,000 in cash and in-kind prizes were awarded to all five student teams. (The prize awards will be paid to the student entrepreneur(s) in recognition of their achievements in preparing for and participating in the pitch competition. There is no obligation to use the prize proceeds for any particular purpose.) 

“The entrepreneurial skills that students learn through the Pitch Competition, including creative problem-solving and persuasive storytelling, will benefit them throughout their careers,” said Blackstone Charitable Foundation Executive Director Maura Pally. “Whether they focus on building their startups or choose another path, we are excited to see where their enormous talent and skills lead them.” 

First place, $20,000: NuLife Kicks, Akeem Anifowoshe and Marquee Anifowoshe, College of Southern Nevada 

NuLife Kicks hopes to pioneer the sneaker restoration trade through both a line of sneaker care products and a business model to develop and train other entrepreneurs in sneaker-care techniques. 

Second place, $15,000: StaffOnTap, Kayla Foley, Cornell 

StaffOnTap wants to make a difference for seniors, nurses, and nursing homes by connecting understaffed nursing homes to temporary nurses at an affordable price. 

Third place, $10,000: Bonsai, Shashank Kumar, UT Dallas 

Bonsai is seeking to revolutionize the world of customer engagement through an AI-tool that automates and assists customer support teams. 

Fourth place, $5,000: Mindsets & Milestones, Diondraya Taylor, UCLA 

Mindsets & Milestones is using entrepreneurial education to help equip the next generation of young women with the skills and self-confidence to succeed in reaching their goals. 

Fifth place, $2,500: SPORA, Andrea Paz Lacavex, UC Santa Cruz 

SPORA, or “Sociology, Planning, and Optimal Restoration of Algae,” is producing Green Gravel in hopes of making the reforestation of kelp forest ecosystems more accessible and scalable. 

For more information about UT Dallas LaunchPad, please click here. Learn more about the broader Blackstone LaunchPad network by clicking here. 


The UT Dallas Computer Science program is one of the largest Computer Science departments in the United States with over 4,000 bachelors-degree students, more than 1,010 master’s students, 140 Ph.D. students,  52 tenure-track faculty members, and 42 full-time senior lecturers, as of Fall 2021. With the University of Texas at Dallas’ unique history of starting as a graduate institution first, the CS Department is built on a legacy of valuing innovative research and providing advanced training for software engineers and computer scientists.

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