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The winners of the Idea Competition from left to right: Niky Sicilia, Laura Holland, Elyssa Ferguson, Emma Neubert. Photo courtesy of the Alex Brown Center for Entrepreneurship.

Annual Idea Competition highlights student entrepreneurs

Last Thursday, students, faculty and family gathered in the A.O.K. Library Gallery for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Idea Competition. The event, which is going into its tenth year, is hosted by the Alex Brown Center for Entrepreneurship every fall semester.

The ‘Retriever Tank,’ as it is playfully nicknamed after the NBC’s show “Shark Tank,” is a contest in which undergraduate students from all majors pitch business proposals with the potential of winning a grand prize of $750. Winners are decided by anonymous ballots from the audience, as well as a panel of three judges that all have entrepreneurial experience.

One of the three judges this year was Josh Massey, a UMBC alumnus from the class of 2014. During his time as an interdisciplinary studies major, he pitched his own proposal at the Idea Competition and won. He went on to launch his idea into a business, which became successful enough to sell to a larger company, and Massey then donated some of his profits from the sale back to UMBC. Massey is now earning his master’s degree at UMBC and is the CEO and co-founder of a new business, Ortus Academy, which teaches financial literacy to young adults.

According to Massey, one of the key aspects of being a successful entrepreneur is to “solve a problem that excites you and gets you up in the morning.” Contestants are asked to do that in October when the Idea Competition process begins. Contestants have to submit a one-page form detailing the problem they plan to solve with their business, along with an optional YouTube video. The judges then select the best entries to give presentations at the Idea Competition. This year, the judges selected nine ideas out of roughly 30 entries. Due to scheduling conflicts, eight of the nine went on to present on Nov. 14.

During the competition, each student was given three minutes to present their ideas. They were also asked questions from both the judges and the audience about the limiting factors of their plans, the cost of production and how they will actually turn a profit on their goods and services.

According to Vivian Armor, the director of the Alex Brown Center for Entrepreneurship and the host of the event, the questions from the audience are always the hardest part of presenting, but arguably the most important.

“Some of the ideas are more thought-out than others right now and that is okay. This is [the students’] opportunity to present something they think is a good idea,” Armor said. “The feedback helps them round it out a little bit more or discard it depending on what is said.”

The ideas themselves were fairly varied, ranging from an online seed catalog to technology that targets and traps active school shooters. The third place project, which received $250, was a program for meal vouchers from Baltimore-based restaurants for local low-income residents. The second place project, which received $500, was a handheld machine designed to braid hair. There was also an honorary award for the best presentation that totaled $250, which was given for an app to help musicians connect with their fans before live performances.

The project that was deemed the Best Idea and received the grand prize money was Octotalk, created by Emma Neubert, a biochemistry junior. The business plans to help children who struggle to communicate through the help of a hand-knit stuffed octopus. The design of the octopus has buttons in each of the eight legs that, when squeezed, will verbalize different sayings like “Yes,” “No” and “I’m hungry.” Neubert plans to use her prize money to make further advancements in the prototype of Octotalk so she can get closer to putting it on the market.

This event precedes the Cangialosi Business Innovation Competition, which the Alex Brown Center for Entrepreneurship hosts each spring. The spring competition is much more extensive and has a grand prize of $3,000, providing students with more resources to bring life to their ideas.