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There’s the pitch: How business plan pitch competitions get young entrepreneurs in the game

It’s no secret that students with ideas for products or services can get help, and even funding, to bring their ideas to life.

Nora Myers is the director of the LaunchLab at WVU Tech. It’s a program that offers space, tools and resources that can help students get their big ideas off the drawing board and into the market.

Myers said that one of those resources is coaching for students who want to enter pitch competitions. What’s a pitch competition? They’re competitive events where students with business plan ideas can “pitch” those ideas to investors, business leaders or judges. And while they’re often rapid-fire events, the rewards for developing a great pitch can be incredible.

“There are pitch competitions everywhere, some at the regional and national level, and they are a great way to test the waters on your business idea. These competitions have become increasingly popular, replacing in many cases business plan competitions. They also allow winners to receive prize money which can help further develop their idea and give them exposure to influential people,” said Myers.

The team approach

In October, Myers worked with a team of WVU Tech mechanical engineering majors on a pitch that they took on the road to the Inaugural Women’s Pitch Competition in Morgantown. Hosted by the WVU LaunchLab Network, that event allowed students to compete for more than $5,000 in prizes.

WVU Tech students at the women's pitch competition in Morgantown.Adriana Rosendo (third from right) and Alexis Branch (second from right) at the Women's Pitch Competition in Morgantown.

The Tech team, which included Adriana Rosendo, Alexis Branch, MacKenzie Wilson and Dominic Rich shared their idea for a specially designed protective baseball batting glove. Part of their senior design project, the idea aims to add an increased layer of protection that runs from the wrist to the fingers.

The team worked with the LaunchLab to research materials and the prospective market to prepare for their five-minute pitch.

“It was a great experience,” said Rosendo. “It was certainly worth it because it lets you see and learn what other women are doing out there. Everyone had great projects with great potential. Competing at this pitch competition was something I enjoyed as well as representing tech as a women engineer.”

“I learned women have a big impact and they can do big things. Everybody had their own innovative idea and took something simple and made something great,” she said.

Beyond getting an idea out into the world, Myers said that incorporating academic projects into pitch competitions can have a powerful impact on the work.

“It prompts students to think a little further along in the process. They front-load a lot of their work, so they see both problems and opportunities earlier. It also prompts students to think more broadly about what they are doing. Could they do more? Have they developed something with IP potential? Is this something they could actually market and sell?” she said.

Going up

WVU Tech student Nima ShahabShahmir has been working on his business plan to turn mushrooms into a substitute for plastics. The idea could create long-lasting, recyclable cups, bowls and other items that would take the place of plastic and Styrofoam consumer products. He’s calling the project “ Future Fungi,” and last year he was awarded more than $10,000 in funding to support the venture.

WVU Tech student Nima ShahabShahmir (right) and WVU student Ethan Ball.Nima ShahabShahmir (right) in St. Louis with WVU student Ethan Ball.

This month, he was selected to participate in a “real” elevator pitch competition in St. Louis, Missouri. ShahabShahmir worked alongside Myers to produce a 30-second pitch video and to practice his pitch, which would take place in front of real investors on a real elevator ride covering 40 floors.

“Nora is always ready to encourage you and share new perspective on the overall idea, which is amazing,” he said. “I was also able to practice my pitch in front of business coaches and directors at WVU Tech. Also, having access to LaunchLab's studio is a great opportunity.”

After his return from Missouri, ShahabShahmir said that he was thrilled to have participated. He didn’t bring home the top award, but he didn’t come home empty-handed, either.

“The competition was an incredible experience. It was very fast-paced and exciting. They sent each student to different elevators to pitch to a group of investors, and as soon as the door would open, there was another elevator with new investors ready to listen to our pitches. I did this 12 times,” he said.

“I believe it is very important for students to participate because, as young entrepreneurs, we are solving different problems in unique and news ways. It is not always about winning the grand prize, but rather taking steps forward and discovering new opportunities along the way,” he said.

Competition comes to campus

In 2018, Myers will bring the pitch competition closer to home, allowing more enterprising students like Rosendo and ShahabShahmir to pitch their great ideas. She’s hosting a regional pitch competition on the WVU Tech campus in Beckley on February 22.

Students can compete in teams of 1-4 people. Teams submit a description of their idea and a committee will select the best ideas for the event. Selected teams will have five minutes to pitch their idea to a panel of judges to compete for $5,000 in prizes. Students will be able to sign up online at the beginning of the spring semester. Teams from Concord University and Bluefield State College will also be invited to attend.

Myers is also planning a January “Idea Mingle” where students from different majors can meet and explore ways in which their business ideas and skillsets might be able to fit together.

“We’re trying to emphasize the concept that uncommon relationships fuel creativity,” she said. “I encourage students to form teams to match ideas with skills. Some students have ideas but need help in certain skill areas, or some students have skills like coding or accounting and they are looking for an idea they can work on. The LaunchLab can help match up needs.”

For students who are on the fence about entering, Myers has some advice.

“Take the shot. If you have an idea, or want to be a part of developing an idea on a team, enter the competition. It hones your problem-solving skills, communication skills, teamwork and networking skills,” she said.

Students who want to find out more can stop by the LaunchLab on the first floor of the Innovation Building or contact Myers at 304.929.1289.