Student innovation stands out at annual Expo Pitch Competition

Elizabeth Harper
May 7, 2018

Students and teams from a variety of degree programs competed to pitch business and innovation ideas to experts from the venture capital, business and banking professions during the 15th annual Student Research & Creative Activity Expo in April.

The winners of the 2018 pitch competition were Alison Brittain in first place; Taylor Crooks in second place; and the team of Michael Barber, Hashim Pashtun and Jessica Hill in third place.

The event was fast-paced and high energy according to Paul Benedict, faculty in Ohio University’s College of Business and one of the judges of the Pitch Competition.

“Everyone had a ton of passion for their ideas,” Benedict said. “It’s inspiring to see people fired up to bring great products and services to the market. The judges asked some tough questions too. The students’ poise was impressive.”

To qualify for the competition, participants and teams each wrote and submitted a one-page summary of their ideas. Those whose ideas were chosen to advance to the final round prepared a three-minute pitch that they presented to a panel of business professionals.

With no limitations on ideas, pitches could come from anywhere and be about anything. Some were high tech, while others were low tech. Some ventures were designed to be for profit while others were presented as not-for-profit.

“There was a ton of variety in the pitches,” Benedict said. “There was a social platform for sharing scientific research, an allergen-free chocolate spread, a network for students to place and find subleases, an Appalachian youth mentoring program, a strength training program, and a location-based social discovery tool.”

Hashim Pashtun, a third-year doctoral student and a member of the team that placed third, was on his third time around in the pitch competition. The first year he entered, he was not selected as a finalist, but subsequent efforts gave him more insight into the process. Students should give the competition a shot, even if they have no prior experience, he said.

“Don’t be afraid or intimidated by the name of ‘challenge’ or ‘innovation,’” Pashtun advised. “Give it a try. It’s surely worth the learning experience, even if you don’t win. My story is an example of trying for three years to make it to first position.”

His team proposed a localized mentorship program for high school students in Appalachia. The program would combat a problem the team identified: 13 percent of Appalachian students never graduate from high school and only a third of those who do go on to college. An interactive map would help students and mentors find each other; mentors could help their mentees with tasks such as creating a resume, searching for universities and planning for the future.

“Our priority was to come up with a solution which is practical, feasible and sustainable,” said Pashtun “The interactive map helped us make the idea more personal for the users.”

After pitching the idea, the team had to answer questions from the panel of judges to demonstrate the depth of thought and detail behind their pitch.

The panel’s five judges represented a wide array of business and entrepreneurship experience including Jon Snyder, founder of Neuros Medical; Neill Lane, CEO of Stirling Ultracold; Ben Lachman, CEO of Potential Labs; Jane New, executive in residence at TechGROWTH Ohio; and Benedict.

The judges scored each pitch based on several factors, including quality of the idea and of the pitch. After tabulating scores, several participants stood out, and the judges had to debate and ultimately decide who did the best job overall.

“We would have loved to award more prizes because many were deserving,” Benedict said. “The best news is that we’ve been able to follow up with many of the teams that didn’t win with offers of additional support from the Center for Entrepreneurship and some of the other partners in the entrepreneurial community here in Athens, including TechGROWTH Ohio, the LIGHTS Regional Initiative, the SEE (Social Enterprise Ecosystem) Initiative, and the Innovation Center. We’re going to keep helping students launch these businesses.”

The Center for Entrepreneurship plans to hold pitch competitions on campus more often. Winners from these competitions could advance to national competitions with larger stakes.

“We want to keep raising the bar,” Benedict said. “We’ve competed in some national competitions, but we want more. We’re going to go win some big ones.”

The Center for Entrepreneurship is a joint partnership between the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs and Ohio University’s College of Business.