University of Iowa senior and Ames native Andrew Shao won the Rose Francis Elevator Pitch Competition, sponsored by the University of Iowa’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, on Dec. 5 with his invention, Test Buddy, a device that gives students more desk space while taking exams. The prize was $5,000, which will be used for packaging and manufacturing costs.

Test Buddy, set to come out in stores this February, is a small platform that attaches to the side of a desk so students have more room to hold their notes, calculators, pens and pencils, test sheets, answer sheets, and coffee cups.

Shao, an entrepreneurial management major in the Henry B. Tippie College of Business, had the idea for the device last spring while taking a statistics test. His desk was so crowded he had to constantly rearrange his materials and couldn’t quite finish the exam.

He began working on the product in September when he got into the Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory (BELL), a business incubator for entrepreneurial students pursuing a business while attending the University of Iowa.

The first step to bringing the idea to fruition was finding Rockwell Collins engineer Mark Reimer to do the 3D rendering for it. Then Shao used the University’s 3D printers to create a prototype, which he had students use and offer their feedback so he could alter the design to be as effective as possible.

Now the final design is almost ready to go, and the first manufacturing run will take place within the next few weeks. Iowa Book has agreed to sell the device on consignment, and Shao hopes to get the product to 13 other retailers in the Midwest in the next two months. He’s also working on selling the product on The retail price will be $10-15.

Shao had little previous entrepreneurial experience and said he faced challenges such as acquiring capital, arriving at a final design, and finding a happy medium between the product’s functionality and manufacturing cost.

To other students working on an innovative invention or entrepreneurial project, Shao’s advice is to not get discouraged when things don’t work out.

“Always look for alternative ways to solve the problem before you completely give up,” said Shao, who hit a few dead ends where he considered giving up the project but instead kept working and found a solution.

Shao said the most rewarding parts is knowing that when Test Buddy is sold in stores it actually has the ability to help students do their best in their tests.

“One of my goals was always to be using it during my finals tests at the end of the semester and look around and see other students using it,” Shao said.

For now, Shao plans to focus all his energies on making Test Buddy a success. But he says this is just the beginning.

“I have an extensive list of items and services I would like to build or create in the future,” he said. 

By Anne Easker