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Strumming Up Business

Italo Leiva was struggling to learn sheet music for guitars when suddenly a light bulb went off. Specifically, a light with seven colors – and made of string. So, Leiva color-coded his guitar strings to improve his skills.

He says it’s all about synesthesia — a condition he studied in cognitive psychology that affects many musicians and mathematicians.

“Psychologists have found that when you use color distinction in learning, you can produce deeper memory integration,” he said. “I thought if I used colors on the guitar strings, it might be easier and quicker to learn how to read sheet music.”

The psych major not only gained new musical mastery, but also launched Leiva Strings, a business that won its founder an NC State competition for entrepreneurs, propelled him into a global business start-up competition and landed him a spot in an intensive three-month business accelerator program in Boston, complete with office space, legal support, mentoring, and targeted introductions to customers and funding sources.

The long and winding road to Boston started at NC State when Leiva and his friend and fellow student Ahmad Abdel-Ghani (an Agricultural Business Management major) entered their business idea in the university’s eGames competition in May.

“The competition cultivates and encourages the spirit of entrepreneurship across all colleges and disciplines at NC State,” says Autumn Mauney, associate director of external relations for the Entrepreneurship Initiative. “Competitors develop an understanding of what it really takes to develop an idea and turn it into a business.”

Leiva Strings won the $3,000 Apollo Award for Best Business Plan and an additional $500 for tying for the most total points in the competition.

Italo Leiva (left) and Ahmad Abdel-Ghani's color-coded guitars strings garnered high praise at NC State's eGames competition earlier this year, and landed Leiva a coveted spot in an intensive three-month business accelerator program in Boston.

“People come up with great ideas every day, but you have to be prepared and able to execute the idea to be successful,” Mauney said. “What really struck me about Italo was his passion and dedication for his product.”

With encouragement from Mauney and others in the Entrepreneurship Initiative, Leiva submitted his invention and business plan to MassChallenge, a global start-up competition and accelerator designed to “help entrepreneurs transform great ideas into great companies.”

This year, the competition attracted 446 applications from 26 countries. Leiva Strings was one of 111 start-ups invited to participate in the competition and accelerator program and, although Leiva Strings did not win the MassChallenge, Leiva says he wouldn’t trade the three-month experience for anything.

“It was exhausting and exhilarating,” said Leiva, who took a semester hiatus from school during the competition. “In three months, I did what most businesses would do in three years.

“It was a real crash course in building a business, getting investments and networking,” he said. “We were judged on just how much we could get accomplished during a very short time.”

Leiva got advice and services from CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, business moguls worth millions of dollars, and seasoned lawyers. He built a business team — comprised largely of NC State alumni and students — that helped him investigate business sales, potential clients, and ways to gain publicity.

He also prizes the network he developed with fellow competitors.

“We were on a hall with entrepreneurs from around the world,” Leiva said. “We developed connections to help our businesses grow. We all had broad perspectives and bounced ideas off each other.”

What’s next for Leiva Strings? For now, Leiva is working on branding his business. He’s negotiating to open an office on Centennial Campus, where Leiva hopes to offer student internships. If all goes according to his business plan, Leiva Strings will be available in stores by December.

And for Italo Leiva, that would be music to his ears.