Hot product wins SFU's Next Top Product competition

November 04, 2013

The weather is cooling off and student entrepreneur Eleanor Li and SFU alumna Rachel Cheng have just the product to keep your coffee warm and your hands cool—hand-knitted warmers for mugs and to-go cups. Li and Cheng, co-owners of Onana Knitted Accessories, are the winners of the SFU Bookstore’s 2013 Next Top Product competition.

They have won a $500 initial purchase order for their product from the SFU Bookstore, which includes promotion and exposure in all three bookstore locations and the online bookstore, plus professional product photography.

The Onana team was among three finalists to pitch their products before a team of judges: business instructor Albert Seah, who is a mentor with the entrepreneurship@SFU program; SFU MBA alumnus Aku Abdul Hussein, CEO of MobiSafe Systems; Colleen Collins, associate dean of business; and Mikhail Dzuba, SFU Bookstore director.

Li, a fifth-year biomedical engineering student and Cheng, an SFU systems engineering alumna, worried about competing against finalist teams Joy’s Lip Balm and Hench Wallet.

“We were up against two business students,” says Li, “but we just went for it.”

Li started her business two years ago after posting a photo on her Facebook page of a knitted mug cozy she had designed. She started to get requests from friends who offered to pay her for her time to knit one, and decided to see how far she could take it.

“I started a Facebook group and it started to grow,” says Li. “That’s when I asked Rachel to take care of social media and join me in the business.”

Cheng, who minored in communication, says the courses in online publishing skills and social media have been extremely useful.

“It’s because of a communication course that we started a Twitter account and we’ve made so many good connections through that,” she says.

They now have an online store through Etsy and have sold quite a few cozies in the U.K., including several to a leading U.K. milk brand, Cravendale.

To meet growing demand they have hired three knitters to assist Li, and have discussed outsourcing with mentors at SFU’s Venture Connection.

“One of my lab mates is from India and her mom is in contact with an orphanage there,” says Li. “It might be an opportunity for women there to earn an income.”

She adds, “If we can go on to have a business that is helping women make a fair trade wage, we would do that. That’s a big end goal for us—we want to make a difference in the world.”

The duo will be selling their product at the Simon Fraser Student Society’s annual Christmas craft fair at the Burnaby campus during the last week of November, and expect their mug warmers, in red, black and navy with hand-embroidered tea tags sporting “SFU”, to be in SFU Bookstores by early December.