Venture Pitch Competition takes students on journey through startup world

Jenna Walter pitches her startup Occupied

From a café where high school students can seek advice and assistance to a rentable robotic cleaning system, students pitched a wide range of ideas at the 2020 Fall Venture Pitch Competition last week. The event is the culmination of the ESP 401/501 Entrepreneurship: New Ventures class, a course that examines the venture creation process within a startup ecosystem.

More than a dozen teams created in the class were narrowed to seven finalists, who pitched their ideas in a virtual event while taking questions from more than 60 judges. The finalist teams also earned a share of $5,000 in prize money.

The top finishers were:

  • 1st place: Occupied -- Michaela Ballard, Jiaqi Ma, Jenna Walter – an idea built around a stuffed animal named Bimby that can help children with their occupational therapy.
  • 2nd place: Adio --Derek Corcoran, Michael Davenport, Chris Irby, MacLain Johnson, Longxin Zhang – a podcast advertising platform that gives more control to the podcast creator.
  • 3rd place: TradeUp -- Justin Fisher, Dane Garson, Dominique Pelz, Ki Sakuma, Hazel Swisshelm, Joe Van Lier Ribbink – an idea for personalizing an affordable business education for skilled labor or trade professionals.

“When I decided to tackle this problem that was so personal to me, and to my surprise, very personal to Michaela, I had no idea how much Occupied would resonate with our classmates, the investors and judges, and all the people watching the livestream. I think with creating a startup, it is so key to pick something that you feel a personal connection for and passion about as well,” Walter said. “I was not confident in my ability to create a company, since I am not a finance or business major. But to my surprise, my team and I were able to make it happen.”

“I'm really proud of the work Jenna, Jiaqi and I put in on Occupied for the pitch competition. The feedback we received from Professor Holcomb and other ESP experts was crucial. Honestly, just making it to the finals was the highlight of my semester!” Ballard remarked.

Judges gave all the participants advice based on their years of experience and their own successes and failures.

“It's obvious that each of you took this project seriously, and many of your companies actually have legs, so continue working on it. Realize that pivots and twists and turns will come. This might not be your ‘the idea,’ but it could be a building block for what you're going to build later in life,” Candice Matthews Brackeen, general partner at Lightship Capital, noted. “Bravo to all of you for your ability to digest the questions, answer in real time, and deliver really honest answers with a lot of poise.”

“All of you exhibited the characteristics of people that I would want to work with. You were humbly confident, not arrogant, but you knew what you wanted to present and you did it well. All of you exhibited teachableness, and that was awesome,” co-founder, chief impact officer, and general counsel of the Impact Foundation Aimee Minnick said. “There are going to be some things that you read in the comments and you're like, ‘Oh, that's not fair.’ ‘I don't like that.’ Or ‘Man, that was a total mess on my part.’ And that's okay because 70 million times throughout the rest of your life, that's going to continue to happen. So learn to take those sorts of difficult feedback moments and say it doesn't define me. You are defined by who you are as a person, not the success or failure that you have in your company.”

“I can't imagine a better educational experience than this environment. It’s incredible to bring this combination of resources and assets together at one place for students to benefit the educational experience,” Mark Richey, managing director at West Capital Advisors, remarked.

“My biggest piece of advice is don't forget the most valuable part of this thing, which is all of the mentorship advice and connections that you're making through this process,” OROS co-founder Michael Markesbery said. “You have incredible individuals from across the country here to give you advice. What you're experiencing here is incredibly unique.”

“We are very honored and humbled to be the winners and we absolutely could not have done it without the mentorship of Tim Holcomb and the entrepreneurship department,” Walter said.