Clothing search engine a winning idea for UI team

Clothing search engine a winning idea for UI team

CHAMPAIGN – If you've ever bought clothes online and wondered if there was anything better – not in the shop next door, but out there in the virtual shopping universe – Fashion Latte may have the answer for you.

Fashion Latte is a visual search engine designed by University of Illinois students to look for clothes online. With it, shoppers will be able to browse dresses by color, pattern and cut using only visual information.

"Given a query image of a dress, we find dresses that are similar in appearance but within a user's price preferences," the Fashion Latte team of students said in their executive summary. "We also match dresses to both shoes and handbags to create outfits."

That idea earned the team first place in the annual Innovation Teams Business Plan Competition sponsored by the UI's Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership.

The winning team of Bernard Ghanem, Esther Resendiz and Sanketh Shetty isn't required to go into business. But the three doctoral students in the UI's Computer Vision and Robotics Lab have already formed their own company, Sanbernest Inc., and are forging ahead with $25,000 they got through the iVentures10 program on campus.

Now, thanks to winning the Innovation Teams competition, they have $5,000 to add to that.

Eight other teams of students from all sorts of disciplines took part in the competition. Forty-one percent of the participants were undergraduates, 38 percent graduate students and 21 percent doctoral students.

The top ideas tended to be high-tech. For example, the second-place team, 3D Ink Solutions, dealt with building "customizable scaffolding" for cell culturing – something done by university researchers, firms doing research in tissue engineering and pharmaceutical companies testing drugs.

The third-place team, ForSaleOnCampus.com, came up with a plan for a free online classifieds domain where college students can buy and sell items within a trusted community.

Ghanem said the Fashion Latte team adopted that name because they wanted the venture to be "a one-stop shop for your daily cup of fashion." Of the three founders, Resendiz "is the guru among us in terms of fashion," he said.

The team hopes to file a patent application this spring. It plans to focus its attention on business-to-business licensing with online apparel catalogs – and developing a "browser plug-in" so shoppers can use Fashion Latte's recommendations on their favorite online catalogs.

Fashion Latte plans to begin contacting major apparel catalogs this summer. The team claims online apparel sales account for 10 percent of all clothing sales.

"A contract with a major online retailer could yield between $60,000 and $100,000 annually, and click-through revenue from our browser plug-in would likely earn around 25 cents per click, yielding up to $10,000 monthly," the team stated in its summary.

Kimberly Sugden, who taught a workshop series for aspiring entrepreneurs, said some participants in the competition don't have time to be company founders. However, she added, many said they'd like to be "intrapreneurs within large companies for the first few years of their careers until they have paid off student loans."