St. Thomas Students Pursue Next Big Idea

Anderson Student Center was bustling with entrepreneurial creativity Nov. 18 as University of St. Thomas students pitched their business ideas to judges at the Fowler Business Concept Challenge. Students competed for more than $88,000 in scholarships with ideas ranging from face scanning technology for EMTs to an app helping Hispanic Americans obtain financial literacy.

Students representing 25 majors competed in either the business concept or social venture track. In addition, the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship introduced the Kate Herzog Memorial Award this year. The award, in honor of the late Kate Herzog ’09 MBA, supports aspiring social entrepreneurs with a passion for poverty alleviation, serving under-resourced communities, and closing opportunity gaps.

With 85 students submitting 59 business ideas, the top 32 teams competed in the morning semifinals, with the top four teams from each track advancing to the finals in the afternoon.

(From left): Ron Fowler, Cole Heppner, Garrett Dwire and University of St. Thomas interim President Rob Vischer. (Kurt Stepnitz Photography)

Cole Heppner and Garrett Dwire took home top honors and a $15,000 scholarship for Refero, a social media app. With Refero, the duo aims to help four-year universities increase student retention and engagement by minimizing student anxiety and stimulating face-to-face conversations to lead to meaningful relationships.

In the social venture track, Georges Macheta and Regina Talavera received a $15,000 scholarship for Fair Up, a platform that fairly distributes daily job opportunities among the working population in Syria.

(From left): Ron Fowler; Regina Talavera; Georges Macheta; sponsors Jill '96 MBA and Jim Putman '97 MBA, '01 MSS; and University of St. Thomas interim President Rob Vischer. (Kurt Stepnitz Photography)

“The Fowler Business Concept Challenge is a semester-long labor of love of the Schulze School, but more importantly it is a premier educational experience, where students from around our university reach deep into themselves and find their own unique gift and will to create,” Schulze School Associate Dean Sheneeta White said. “This is a place where they can develop the knowledge, skills and confidence they need to be entrepreneurial thinkers and doers, innovators for the common good.”

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 53 local entrepreneurs and business leaders, including 31 who are St. Thomas alumni.

“Entrepreneurship is about sparking creative confidence. It takes courage to put yourself out there and expose an idea to the world for feedback,” St. Thomas interim President Rob Vischer told attendees. “I’m so proud of our student competitors who took that leap of faith to compete today. You are growing your ‘confidence muscles’ and showing great initiative and leadership, the kind that will reap abundant rewards in your future.”

Kate Herzog Memorial Award

Herzog, who passed away in October 2021 after a battle with cancer, founded House of Talents, a company connecting artisans in developing countries with consumers worldwide, after earning her MBA.

Kate Herzog with baskets.Kate Herzog '09 MBA (Thomas Whisenand/University of St. Thomas)

“Kate was a remarkable person – fearless, generous, unsparingly honest, profoundly committed to lifting others up through House of Talents,” Opus College of Business Dean Laura Dunham said. “Her loss is greatly felt, but her legacy even more so. She leaves behind a tremendous legacy of love, friendship and lives forever transformed and bettered by her efforts, achievements, and example.”

Chumisa, one of the social venture track applicant teams founded by Justa Heinan-Kay, was awarded a $2,500 scholarship as the recipient of the Kate Herzog Memorial Award. Through a partnership with three young residents in one of the largest townships in Cape Town, Chumisa addresses poverty alleviation, food security and environmental sustainability in South Africa.

“In the spirit of Kate’s work with House of Talents, Chumisa exemplifies the investment of time, passion and partnership with the local community that is so needed in this hard work of lasting social impact,” Dunham said. “We’re excited for what the future holds for Justa and her partners as they look to pilot their model in 10 households this December.”

Since its inception, the Fowler Business Concept Challenge has drawn more than 1,500 students and awarded more than $780,000 in scholarships. It 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.

High School Innovation and Entrepreneurship Day took place concurrently with the competition. More than 100 teachers and students from Minnesota high schools 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.

2022 Fowler Business Concept Challenge winners:

Business Concept Track

  • Winner ($15,000): Refero, Cole Heppner (entrepreneurship) and Garrett Dwire (economics). A social media app to help four-year universities increase student retention and engagement by minimizing student anxiety and stimulating face-to-face conversations to lead to meaningful relationships, unlike college engagement platforms.
  • Runner-up ($7,500) and Most Effective Presenter ($1,000): Adgamz, Max Karas (entrepreneurship) and Zack Navone (entrepreneurship). An app that allows users to play games created by advertisers in exchange for subscription services like Spotify Premium.
  • Second Runner-up ($5,000): FAVER, Jenny Behrens (MBA) and Ben Taylor (MBA). A face scanning technology to allow EMTs to provide better care to patients in an emergency.
  • Third Runner-up ($2,500): APE Response Systems, Parker Stromquist (real estate studies). APE First Responder Kits and Subscriptions takes the most common medical emergencies first responders and medical staff face and puts the equipment and supplies for each medical response into its own kit, within the main first responders’ kit. The subscription is a refill system for used and expired supplies where responders send their kits in to be restocked, removing the responsibility from the responders and medical staff.

Social Venture Track

  • Winner ($15,000): Fair Up, Georges Macheta (entrepreneurship and computer science) and Regina Talavera (entrepreneurship). A platform that fairly distributes daily job opportunities among the working population in Syria.
  • Runner-up ($7,500) and Most Effective Presenter ($1,000): Alleviating Rural Women’s Burden by Producing Wood Pellets, Beamlak Petros (entrepreneurship). A project addressing the energy and health constraints faced by women in Ethiopia as well as the ongoing practice of using firewood collected directly from forests to fuel household activities.
  • Second Runner-up ($5,000): Chemco, Gabriel Riegert (leadership and management). A material reclaiming facility, with a leading-edge processing potential.
  • Third Runner-up ($2,500): Tu Amigos de Finanzas, Montserrat Blanco Lopez (entrepreneurship and marketing). An interactive app designed with the purpose to help Hispanic Americans obtain financial literacy.

Kate Herzog Memorial Award ($2,500): Chumisa, Justa Heinan-Kay (MBA). Chumisa empowers residents of Khayelitsha (South Africa’s largest township) to earn supplemental income by composting their food scraps using worms, also known as vermicomposting. The finished product, “black gold,” will be purchased by Chumisa for distribution to urban farms or kept by residents to use in their own garden.