The excitement was contagious at the 2019 Fowler Business Concept Challenge competition held at St. Thomas’ Anderson Student Center last Friday. The event drew an impressive group of innovative student thinkers who presented creative business ideas on everything from an alternative to plastic bags to a smartphone case with a built-in braille reader. In total, $84,000 in scholarships was awarded to those who embraced their entrepreneurial spirit.
Students represented 28 academic programs while competing in the business concept or social venture track. With 78 students submitting 56 business ideas, the top 30 teams competed in the morning semifinals at Anderson Student Center, with the top four teams from each track advancing to the finals in the afternoon.
Entries were judged on a variety of merits including originality, clear and compelling value proposition, competitive advantage, and market opportunity and feasibility. This year’s group of judges included 59 local entrepreneurs and business leaders, including 21 who are St. Thomas alumni.
While finalists vied for $62,000 in scholarships, in a surprise twist this year, Ron Fowler ’66 – the competition’s driving force and namesake – announced that every team that competed in the semifinals (and did not advance to the finals) would also be given a $1,000 scholarship.Entrepreneurship major Amy Helgeson won the business track – and a $15,000 scholarship – for Solupal, an innovative and convenient alternative to the traditional plastic bag.
“I made it to the semifinals with a different start-up last year,” Helgeson said after the event. “This year I was super excited to go to the finals and then to win the whole thing – I was not expecting that. It’s really exciting. It proves what we’re doing right now is going to make a difference and people see that. It’s exciting to see that people are excited by what we’re doing and want to see us grow.”
MBA student Anna Bosak took home top honors and a $15,000 scholarship in the social venture track with Jump Start Auto, an auto repair shop that will “train and employ ex-offenders committed to changing their lives, and offer accessible, trustworthy, and educational repair services specifically tailored to women and young/first-time vehicle owners.”
“As an undergrad, I tutored incarcerated students for four years and became passionate about serving that community,” Bosak said. “And I was taught when I was younger that if I was to own a car, I had to be able to change the oil and tires and things. I still change my own oil and I think people want to learn more about how to take care of their car, so I thought that was an interesting niche in the market as well.”
Before the winners were announced (see a full list below) President Julie Sullivan addressed the crowd, saying entrepreneurship is in the DNA of St. Thomas. She noted the university’s founder, Archbishop John Ireland, was an entrepreneur who created “great things” for the community, including St. Thomas.
“Today was such a marvelous opportunity for our students to have their ideas tested, to build confidence, to work with others,” Sullivan said. “I want to say how grateful we are to be able to host something like the Fowler Business Concept Challenge.”
Ron Fowler followed Sullivan on stage with some brief remarks.
“To the students who take the time, put the energy into sharing their ideas, it’s truly special to be here and see what the next generation is going to be able to achieve,” Fowler said. “We’re in very good hands with you, your attitude and your capability to contribute.”
Since its inception, the Fowler Business Concept Challenge has drawn more than 1,200 students and awarded more than $600,000 in scholarship money. It is named in recognition of Fowler, chairman and CEO of Liquid Investments Inc., whose gift to the university has made this and future competitions possible.
“The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well at the University of St. Thomas,” said Laura Dunham, associate dean of the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship. “And students who compete in the Fowler come away from the experience with the knowledge, skills and confidence to be innovators and make real impact in any field they enter.”
Coinciding with the competition was High School Innovation and Entrepreneurship Day. More than 75 students and 14 educators from 13 high schools across the Twin Cities learned about design thinking and entrepreneurship. They also watched the Fowler presentations, shared their observations and took part in a discussion facilitated by Schulze School of Entrepreneurship faculty.
2019 Fowler Business Concept Challenge winners:
Business Concept Track
- Winner ($15,000): Solupal, Amy Helgeson (Entrepreneurship). Solupal bags – an innovative and convenient alternative to traditional plastic bags – are completely water-soluble and leave no negative environmental effects after use.
- Runner-up ($7,500): Launch, Mollika Tahsin (MS in Data Science). Launch is a revolutionary, end-to-end recruiting platform that uses artificial intelligence and innovative solutions to better place IT professionals.
- Second Runner-up ($5,000) and Best Presenter ($1,000): Chef in the Fridge, Jack Vincent (Entrepreneurship) and Jeremy Ziemer (Computer Engineering). Chef in the Fridge is a business that uses state-of-the-art technology to turn standard household fridges into smart fridges of the future.
- Third Runner-up ($2,500): Towel Tags, Andrew Daily (Business Operations, Supply Chain Management). Towel Tags are water-resistant, silicone, color-coded identifiers that clip onto any towel using embedded magnets.
Social Venture Track
- Winner ($15,000): Jump Start Auto, Anna Bosak (MBA). Jump Start Auto is an auto repair shop that will train and employ ex-offenders committed to changing their lives, and offers accessible, trustworthy, and educational repair services specifically tailored to women and young/first-time vehicle owners.
- Runner-up ($7,500): BraillEasy, Abenezer Ayana (Computer Science) and Amanda Baumgart (Entrepeneurship). BraillEasy is a detachable smartphone case with a built-in braille reader and writer that helps blind users access braille right from the comfort of their palm.
- Second Runner-up ($5,000) and Best Presenter ($1,000): DigiConnections: Bridging the Digital Divide, Himani Joshi (Business Administration, Management) and Brianna Kirk (Marketing, Entrepreneurship). DigiConnections is a TV Whitespace distributor combating the negative effects of the digital divide in rural and educational markets.
- Third Runner-up ($2,500): Correcycle, Adam Wrucke (MBA). Correcycle (portmanteau of correct and recycle) seeks to make consumers better recyclers by empowering local waste departments with tools designed to drive customer engagement in order to educate and encourage best waste disposal habits.