At Texas A&M, students know that springtime means innovation. The Ideas Challenge, hosted by the Texas A&M Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship (CNVE), looks to Aggies of all majors, from freshmen to graduate level, to come up with “the next big thing.” Hundreds of Aggies take advantage of this opportunity to present their ideas for marketable new products and services to members of business and academic communities.
The Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship is dedicated to fostering an entrepreneurial mindset within Texas A&M students, and for the tenth year in a row, the Ideas Challenge provides the perfect amount of incentive and competition to pique their interests. The challenge helps students develop their ideas from a business standpoint, pushing the participants to assess their products or services based on their on marketability, applicability and efficacy.
Students are encouraged to work hard and think outside the box when it comes to their submissionsâ€”a winning idea requires creativity, careful planning, detailed writing and a compelling business presentation. Entry is free, but the competition is huge; in past years, the challenge has drawn in more than 400 submissions, and only the top 40 are named finalists. However, the incentive is huge: the top five ideas are awarded thousands in cash prizes.
Getting to the top isn’t easy. Judges pepper the students with questions, assessing whether or not their idea is a stable venture. They challenge the feasibility, financial viability and overall value of the submissions, but the evaluation doesn’t simply end there. Students are also heavily appraised on their writing, presentation, organization and communication skills. If they are unable to clearly and persuasively express their business idea to the judges, participants are unlikely to succeed.
The CNVE hosts several workshops to help students craft their submissions. Each entry must include a detailed list of which customers, competitors and suppliers will be involved in the business concept. Students must also prepare a 2-Minute Drill, a succinct and persuasive speech that outlines the fundamentals of their idea. This, the CNVE stresses, will be the most crucial element of their presentations.
Richard Lester, clinical associate professor and executive director of the CNVE, says that as far as the Ideas Challenge goes, “the idea to think creatively is the greatest resource for students.” He feels that the challenge allows participants a unique opportunity to express themselves in innovative new ways.
“So often [students] just follow along with textbooks, but this program challenges them to think on their own in a very creative and different way,” Lester says. He has seen numerous submissions in the past that are every bit as innovative as they are diverse, ranging from a bicycle helmet safety device to a mobile cupcake van.
In previous years, the panel of judges has seen multiple winning ideas. One student developed a networking website that allows its members to rate and compare courses at Texas A&M with their fellow classmates, as well as buy and sell textbooks. Another proposed a business idea that allows customers to decorate ready-made cakes themselves. Over the last five years, judges have seen submissions as diverse as duct-tape sandals and a method for directing the color of cultured pearls.
“The goal is to show students that you can create your own job at some point,” Lester says, adding that the Ideas Challenge “highlights creativity and solving some of the world’s problems.”
The program receives ample support from Texas A&M faculty members from other disciplines as well. Rodney Hill, a renowned professor in the College of Architecture, requires all students in his ENDS 101-Design Process course to compete in the challenge.
“The whole class is about generating knowledge, not reproducing knowledge,” states Hill, who has been at Texas A&M since receiving his master’s degree in architecture from University of California-Berkeley in 1969.
Hill arranges his students in groups of six, mixing both majors and genders to provide a trans-disciplinary environment. They come up with a “soft innovation” each week. Hill advises his students to examine “things that might irk them during the day, and come up with a solution.” At the end of the year his students are required to submit a final product to the Ideas Challenge. Last year, his students took first, second and and one of the three third places.
2011 Ideas Challenge
This year’s Ideas Challenge was held on May 4. The 2011 winners were:
- First Place: University Folding Bikes – Patrick Daniels and Martin Griggs
- Second Place: Scream Cards – Blake Carlton and Evan Lange
- Third Place (3): Austin City Hotel – Jason Childs; Advanced Cell Culture System – Mithil Chokshi, Ashley Labonte, Jeehyun Park, Michael Whiltely; The Stint – James Bonn, Hillary Brugger, Megan Hafner, Edward Hartmann, Johnny Shih, Luke Smith