David Saldana

A group of graduate students won the Texas Venture Labs Investment competition with a company designed to bring new media to an old platform: the telephone.

Technology commercialization graduate students David Saldana, Justin Dickstein, Arely Fontecha and Martin McCrea started Vocal Media, a venture that would allow companies to play advertisements during the dead time in international phone calls. They’ll go on to represent UT at the Global Venture Labs Investment Competition in May.

“It’s pretty much the creation of a new media space,” Saldana said. “We figured that everyone is talking about newer technologies, but what about plain old telephone calls?”

For nine months, Saldana and his team conducted market research and concluded that using that dead air would be valuable. Rather than waiting to connect, callers will instead be able to listen to advertisements.

“The callers will be pleasantly entertained with this type of information in their own language for 15 seconds,” Saldana said. “[This will be] something that is not annoying, something that people look forward to as opposed to the next technological nuisance.”

Winning the Texas round of this competition means that Saldana and his team will have a one-year internship with the Austin Technology Incubator, a high-profile organization that aids entrepreneurs.

The competition began in 1984, making it the oldest business plan competition in the world. Only UT students are eligible to participate.

The idea of the company was to simulate raising venture capital, said Ann Whitt, communications and marketing manager for the Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship.

“What the competition does is give the students the opportunity to get some feedback on their plan so that they can refine it, so that when they do present it to investors, they’re more likely to get funding,” she said.

In addition to Vocal Media, the other companies that made it to the Feb. 16 finals were ClearBrook Imaging, which would create diagnostic imaging technology, Garage Fairy, which would help customers sell their unwanted items online, and Urban Dish, a business that would make ordering sustainable food efficient and convenient.

Although winning the competition did not award funding to Saldana and his team, Saldana still appreciates the opportunities that will come from it.

“You get a double whammy,” he said. “You get your degree and you get your skills and you get your project off the ground, so what else can you ask for?”