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Student entrepreneurs compete for cash prizes to build their ideas

Cade Belisle/Collegian

Students, alumni and entrepreneurs gathered last night in the University of Massachusetts Computer Science Building for the UMass Innovation Challenge Minute pitch.

A total of 11 teams of aspiring entrepreneurs were given 60 seconds to pitch their innovation idea without the use of slides, prototypes or written business plans to an audience and panel of five judges.

Immediately after their 60-second pitch each team participated in a three-minute question and answer session with the judges.

The program’s goal was to educate students in innovation, technology and entrepreneurship, according to the UMass Amherst Innovation Challenge website. The competition is designed to help students and young alumni who want to pursue a business idea, develop a technology into a marketable product, or have a new approach to a difficult problem or opportunity.

Heather Demers, the Director of The Innovation Challenge was front and center greeting students and audience members as they arrived.

“This is somewhat of an introduction to the initial Innovation Challenge that takes place during the fall semester,” said Demers.  “Students are given the chance to talk about their idea and are provided constructive criticism. They are able to meet and network with mentors, which will hopefully better prepare them for The Innovation Challenge in the fall. This is a chance for the students to get their feet wet.”

Michael F. Malone, a Ronnie and Eugene Isenberg Distinguished Professor and Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement began the event by spotlighting the distinguished group of judges as well as informing the audience of the official rules of the challenge.

Malone is one of the founding developers of The Innovation Challenge program.

“We started The Innovation Challenge seven years ago through The Isenberg School of Management,” said Malone. “Everything was done through fundraising and all the prize money comes directly from private sponsors.”

Malone has never participated in a challenge as a judge, stating that “it would be a conflict of interest.” He said he wants to save that opportunity for the program’s sponsors and previous Innovation Challenge winners.

Among last night’s judges was Brian Mullen, a 2009 UMass alumnus and 2008 Innovation Challenge $50,000 grand prize winner.

“I lost the first year in 2008, but took advantage of all the mentorship and support I received through the program and came back the following year and won,” said Mullen.

Mark Lester of Provenance Venture Partners, LLC has been a sponsor of the Innovation Challenge program since it first began back in 2004. He also served on the judges panel last night asking students tough questions such as “how will you market your product and who is your target audience?” and “how will your product generate revenue?”

In addition to being a sponsor and judge for the Innovation Challenge, Lester also serves as a mentor to student participants.

“The students are excited by taking what they learn and doing something with it,” said Lester. “Everyone across the board is encouraged to keep going through mentorship and the advice they receive.”

After all 11 teams delivered their minute pitch, they were asked to leave the room while the judges deliberated. The Minute Pitch participants were eligible to win a first place prize of $1,000, second place prize of $750, or third place prize of $500. In addition to the three placement prizes, participants were also eligible to win a $250 award based on audience votes.

Audience members were provided with three ways to vote for their favorite participant through the use of their laptops or mobile devices. They had the option of either texting the name of their favorite presenter to a specified number, tweeting @poll followed by the presenter’s names on Twitter, or via the Internet on their laptops or smartphones at

Students enjoyed pizza and wings as they waited for the winners to be announced. UMass junior, marketing major and co-founder of Khross clothing and life style brand, Vincent Morano was one of the challenge participants waiting on the announcement of the winners.

When asked what was the hardest part of the Minute Pitch Morano said,

“The hardest part was the public speaking. I always have a hard time with public speaking no matter how many times I do it,”

In first place was Marcelia Muehlke, Management (MBA) and Public Policy & Administration (MPPA) candidate, with her presentation on Joya Bride, a company she hopes to develop that will produce fair-trade wedding gowns.

The second place prize was awarded to Rance Rodrigues, Electrical and Computer Engineering PhD candidate for his presentation on Campus Convenience.

“It’s a smarter craigslist. Students can find housing, books, even hiking buddies right in their area,” said Rodrigues. “It’s convenient because it only notifies individuals of post specifically targeted to their needs.”

The winners of the third place prize as well as the audience-choice were senior civil engineering major Christopher Jones and senior environmental science and natural resource economics major Adrienne Wickham-Gobert for their presentation on Carbon Scrubbers.

Both students hope to produce an aftermarket automotive device that can be purchased at most automotive stores and attached to individual vehicles to help prevent carbon emissions that pollute the environment.

Students who walked away from the challenge without a cash prize did not walk away empty handed. They had the opportunity to share their ideas and network with professionals who can help prepare them for the official Innovation Challenge in the fall. For those students who did walk away with cash prizes they are encouraged to put that money into the development and progression of their ideas.

Harmonie Charland can be reached at


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