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Got a groundbreaking business idea? Want to see where it can take you? For budding student entrepreneurs, iChallenge on the Hilltop’s Business Plan Competition is the perfect opportunity. Sponsored by The Bill Munday School of Business, the annual event provides students with support, resources and a forum to pitch their concepts, develop a plan and compete for prizes.

At this year’s iChallenge on the Hilltop award event, a crowd of students, faculty and local business professionals gathered at the Google Fiber Space in downtown Austin to watch eight student teams pitch innovative business plans.

As judges ventured to the green room to tally scores, Alan Chapa ’17, president of the St. Edward’s Student Entrepreneurship Club, made a special presentation. He invited Wes Hurt ’05, founder of Hey Cupcake!, a successful food-truck venture, to the podium to present him with the first-ever Entrepreneur of the Year award.

Hurt took the stage and received the award on behalf of his current initiative, CLEAN Cause, a purified-water and energy drink company focused on providing jobs and support for recovering addicts. But he soon switched gears to talk about the human aspect of entrepreneurship ― how his journey and the St. Edward’s University experience impacted his personal growth.

Mentoring Young Entrepreneurs

For the 11th year in a row, The Bill Munday School of Business has hosted the Business Plan Competition, which is open to students from all majors. In 2016, the competition became part of iChallenge on the Hilltop, a five-month-long process of developing a viable business plan. First, students pitch their concepts at the Ideas for Innovation Competition. Next, the winners move on to partner with faculty and community mentors, and attend a series of tutorial sessions to create their business plans. Finally, they present their work at the Business Plan Competition.

This year’s ideas took the form of new products and services that improved healthcare delivery, recycled auto parts and even converted heat into electricity. Invited judges Kyle Ballarta, Falkon Ventures; Juli James, The Bill Munday School of Business; Bill Kennedy, G51 Amplify; and Vicky Valdez, City of Austin, awarded first, second and third place to teams that described a problem and solution clearly, explained the market opportunity and stimulated investor interest.

Modernizing the High Chair

First Place: The Lemur Chair

When Jessica Martinsen ’18 served as a hostess at the W Austin Hotel in 2012, she was impressed by the company’s strong brand and design aesthetic, but every time restaurant customers requested a high chair for their toddler, she hated carrying the unwieldy wooden chair through a crowded dining room and over peoples’ heads to get a table. And the chairs were clearly uncomfortable for the kids sitting in them, she said.

This experience sparked an idea for the Lemur Chair ― a portable, safe and comfortable high chair that is also dishwasher friendly. Martinsen partnered with Paige Hanlon ’17, secretary of the Student Entrepreneurship Club, to push the Lemur Chair forward. By the time Martinsen pitched to Austin business leaders at the Ideas for Innovation Competition ― the first step in moving on to the Business Plan Competition ― she and Hanlon had already started conducting market research.

At the pitch, Kim Gorsuch, CEO of Weeva, served as a judge and provided valuable feedback ― she liked the product, but it was hard to visualize. Martinsen and Hanlon began recruiting engineers and design students to sketch a prototype.

They worked to validate the market by creating an online survey and introducing themselves to parents in parks and day cares around the city. What they found was that baby products spread through word of mouth. With the help of their mentor, Assistant Professor of Management Keith Ward, Martinsen and Hanlon conducted industry research and searched for patents with similar products.

After winning the Business Plan Competition, Martinsen and Hanlon are focused on applying for a patent that will protect their intellectual property. They also plan on meeting with Juli James, assistant professor of Marketing, for help expanding their survey base beyond the region.

iChallenge on the Hilltop was a learning experience, they said — blocks they can build on to take the Lemur Chair to market. “It’s provided us a first step — we saw this as a push in the right direction,” Martinsen said. “If you think of an idea and want it to bad enough, it can happen.”

Making the Perfect Call

Second Place: Blue Vision Sport

Most baseball players are frustrated with bad calls, so the idea that one product could reduce poor officiating in youth and high school leagues was really more of a fantasy, a joke Ty Markee ’20 would make with his friends his junior year of high school.

It wasn’t until his “Principles of Marketing” class in Fall 2016 that Markee thought maybe there was something more to his idea. He partnered with fellow baseball player Everett Featherston ’20 on a group project and created a marketing plan for a revolutionary umpire technology.

Leaving class, Markee noticed a flyer for iChallenge on the Hilltop and recruited Featherston and another baseball teammate, Austin Stevens ’20, to pitch the concept. At the Ideas for Innovation Competition, Markee was nervous. When David Altounian, assistant professor of Entrepreneurship, read the names of the teams who moved on, Markee didn’t hear Blue Vision Sport and assumed they didn’t make it ― only to discover their idea had won the pitch competition.

The freshmen hadn’t taken many business courses, but they took advantage of meetups hosted by the Student Entrepreneurship Club and made key connections with computer engineers and local entrepreneurs. Feedback helped their idea develop into a camera implanted in the umpire’s mask, which sends a feed to the computer, registers whether the pitch is a strike or a ball, and relays that information back to the umpire.

The week before the Business Plan Competition, the team thought they were far behind. But thanks to some presentation tweaking and encouragement from Altounian and Executive in Residence Antonio Alvarado, Blue Vision Sport earned second place. Now, their goal is to continue validating the market, developing a prototype and entering national business plan competitions.

Their advice for other freshmen? Venture out, and invest time in things that you are passionate about. “It challenged us,” Markee said. “I learned more from this than I have from any class.”

Educating Millennials on Personal Finances

Third Place: Kibitzer Ventures

When Roger Gans, visiting instructor of Communications, mentioned iChallenge on the Hilltop in his Fall 2016 “Principles of Advertising” course, Ann Nguyen knew she had an idea that she wanted to pitch. Nguyen was preparing to graduate in December, and a common theme in her conversations with fellow seniors had been personal finances.

“They didn’t know how they were going to pay for everything,” Nguyen said. “They were stressed out, and finance is not a sexy topic.” Many of her classmates expressed their desire to be financially independent, but they didn’t know where to start.

At the Ideas for Innovation Competition, Nguyen pitched an idea for an app that assessed millennials’ financial knowledge and provided templates that educated them on financial decision-making. The judges selected her to move forward, but Nguyen, a Communication major, realized she needed team members with strong business backgrounds.  

She sent out a message on the “SEU Class of 2016” Facebook page and found team members who were passionate about her app idea, including Jesus Salazar ’17, Entrepreneurship. He helped the team find co-working space, while Nguyen felt comfortable as the team leader.

Together, they met with Gordon Daugherty, accelerator and managing director at Capital Factory, P.K. Chatterjee, visiting instructor of Finance, and Mark Murdock, a technology lawyer and member of The Bill Munday School of Business Advisory Council. The team received valuable legal and financial insight.

Although Nguyen was nervous on the morning of the Business Plan Competition, she was proud of her team’s performance and their third place prize winnings. Equipped with new knowledge and skills, Nguyen is working to move Kibitzer Ventures forward. “This is something that evolved into a passion of mine,” she said.

The Bill Munday School of Business will host iChallenge on the Hilltop annually, beginning with the Ideas for Innovation Competition in the fall and the Business Plan Competition in the spring. All St. Edward’s University students are invited to participate.

By Katie Finney