“It’s been truly exciting to hear all the different problems teams are wrestling with and all the great creative thinking they’re bringing to [the Fowler Business Concept Challenge].”

St. Thomas’ Schulze Hall was abuzz with students pitching innovative ideas on Friday as part of the Ninth Annual Fowler Business Concept Challenge, where $62,000 in scholarships was on the line.

This year’s event drew students from 30 academic programs who competed in one of two tracks – business or social venture. The top 16 teams were invited to Friday’s semifinals, with the top four in each track awarded scholarships.

For the challenge – held annually in the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship – participating students develop a concept with the potential to become a viable, high-growth business. Entries are judged on originality, clear and compelling value proposition, competitive advantage, market opportunity and feasibility.

“It’s been truly exciting to hear all the different problems teams are wrestling with and all the great creative thinking they’re bringing to it,” said Laura Dunham, associate dean of the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship, before announcing the winners. “It’s so wonderful to see many different students from so many parts of the university. We had 90 submissions this year from 119 students, both undergraduate and graduate. There were 30 academic disciplines across the university represented. And it was an amazing thing. There’s a lot of creativity here and many great entrepreneurs.”

This year’s Fowler Business Concept Challenge winners include:

Business Concept Track

  • Winner ($15,000): Safe in Sound, Savannah Hufendick (Finance and Entrepreneurship, Undergraduate)
  • Runner-up ($7,500): StudyGroup, Jalen Betsinger (Mechanical Engineering, Undergraduate)
  • Second Runner-up ($5,000) and Most Effective Presenter ($1,000): STEAM Montessori Kids Care, Grace Gathaara (Business Analytics, Graduate)
  • Third Runner-up ($2,500): Isern Biotechnology, Evan M. Kalb (Biochemistry, Undergraduate)

Safe in Sound is revolutionizing hearing-loss protection in the earbud market. It entails a device that would measure the volume of sound from an earbud and pair with a software application, which transmits the data and measurements to set volume at appropriate levels. The earbuds would provide effective standardized hearing-loss protection from variations in sound levels from devices, applications and user volume settings.

Safe in Sound founder Savannah Hufendick said the effects from having your headphones too loud is a “huge problem” and can lead to irreversible hearing damage.

“Once people hear about the problem, they’re in shock,” said the junior. “It’s a growing problem today and I want to solve it.”

Hufendick said she enjoyed competing in the Fowler and is looking forward to advancing Safe in Sound in the future.

“It was a great experience presenting and the feedback I got from all the judges was fantastic,” she said.

Social Venture Concept Track

  • Winner ($15,000) and Most Effective Presenter ($1,000): Seraph 7 Studios, Jules Porter (JD/MBA, Graduate)
  • Runner-up ($7,500): Language of Learning, Julia Zappa (Middle/Secondary Education and Communication Arts and Literature, Undergraduate)
  • Second Runner-up ($5,000): Sun Light, Rose Whitney-Eliason (Marketing, Undergraduate)
  • Third Runner-up ($2,500): Esperanza Fellowship, Georgina Chinchilla Gonzalez (MBA, Graduate)

Seraph 7 Studios is an African-American-owned and -directed video game company. It gives diverse communities a seat at the table by telling fresh stories with an unrivaled authenticity, and investing in the next generation of diverse gamers to empower them to tell their stories in an interactive medium. Through work study programs and summer camps, it aims to increase the graduation rates and reduce the achievement gaps of students of color. This develops and uplifts local students, while increasing the cultural competency and nuanced multi-cultural understanding of players.

“I have been a gamer my entire life since I was a little kid playing ‘Mario,’” laughed graduate student and Seraph 7 Studios founder Jules Porter. “But over the decades there are things developers have yet to address such as the way women are portrayed in gaming. We’re scantily clad, we’re hyper-sexualized and it’s unrealistic. I’ve also served in the Marine Corps and I’ve never gone into battle half naked, so why do we keep putting people out there like that?”

“I also looked at the way people of color are portrayed in gaming,” she continued. “We’re barely included. When we are, we’re gangsters or drug dealers. Instead of seeing ourselves as heroes, we’re the bad guys. We don’t get to be the hero and that’s a problem.”

Porter not only won first place, but she also took home “Most Effective Presenter” accolades.

“It was really fun,” she said. “I was intimidated until I stepped up and suddenly I was calm and excited. I wanted to let that excitement flow through and let the judges see it. I think they connected with the positive energy. That’s the type of energy I want to bring to students to get them excited about STEM courses and to build up their confidence when they walk into the classroom.”

“Fresh, new ideas”

The Fowler Business Concept Challenge is named in recognition of Ron Fowler ’66, chairman and CEO of Liquid Investments Inc., whose gift to the university has made this and future competitions possible. This year’s scholarships were also made possible by gifts from Fowler; the Cade family; Ernst & Young; Fidelity Bank; William Hoeg; and the Charles Kubly Entrepreneurial Scholarship.

“My perspective on life is jaded by all the years I’ve been here, so it’s nice to hear fresh, new ideas and see the enthusiasm the presenters have for their ideas,” said Fowler, who also served as at judge at the competition. “I had a number of individuals who did not get to the finals tell me how much they enjoyed it.”

Coinciding with the Fowler was High School Innovation and Entrepreneurship Day. More than 100 students and 23 educators from 15 high schools across the Twin Cities took part in a design thinking workshop and learned about entrepreneurship. They also had the opportunity to watch the Fowler presentations, vote on their favorites and take part in a discussion facilitated by Schulze School of Entrepreneurship faculty.

“It’s really interesting and I’ve learned a lot,” said Litchfield High School junior Kelsey Christensen. “I need to open my mind more and be more aware that a lot of these ideas do come from imagination and can be built up to something. I think it’s cool you can turn one simple idea into something big.”

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