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Valuable Lessons, Funding Plentiful at St. Thomas-hosted e-Fest

Eighteen sets of eyes followed Jim Wetherbe as he moved throughout the third-floor classroom at the Opus College of Business' Schulze School of Entrepreneurship on Friday on St. Thomas’ Minneapolis campus. Wetherbe, a Richard Schulze Distinguished Professor from Texas Tech University, talked about different communication models that could be used to negotiate difficult conversations those listening would undoubtedly have in their future.

“You have to honestly feel like it’s a win-win,” Wetherbe said in response to a question about whether a conversation could be steered toward a solution for both parties.

It would all be valuable information, because those listening were in the business of promoting their ideas: They were about half of the college students on hand for e-Fest, a three-day conference and business competition where $200,000 was awarded for the country’s top undergraduate business ideas. Wetherbe’s was one of several seminars throughout the conference, which culminated on Saturday night with the awarding of $100,000 to a team of undergraduates from Virginia Tech University for their idea Park and Diamond, "an attractive, packable bicycle helmet that resembles a baseball cap and gives bicyclists protection without bulk;" $50,000 to Northeastern University's Eat Your Coffee, "a breakfast bar loaded with caffeine for students and others who don't have time to pick up coffee but need their caffeine hit;" and $25,000 to Auburn University's Yellow Card, "a digital currency similar to Bitcoin, but with many features that make it less challenging to use, especially for those traveling in other countries." An additional $25,000 in grant funding went to the three respective universities to support entrepreneurship.

Richard Schulze

Richard Schulze speaks at e-Fest.

“It’s so inspiring to be surrounded by so many successful people and to see there are people who think like you and have the same passions,” said Lizzy Svigelj of University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose company, Torridity Instrument Heating Solutions LLC, creates products that allow musicians to move and use their instruments in adverse outdoor conditions. “It’s just an absolutely incredible and humbling experience. We started as just a design team and now we’re here pitching our idea at a national entrepreneur competition, so it’s an amazing opportunity no matter what.”

With 25 teams vying for the awards not everyone was deemed a “winner,” but the value of the gathering went beyond just the competition for many.

“I appreciate how all of our ideas are so vastly different. I don’t regularly interact with engineering entrepreneurs, with artificial intelligence, with medical devices,” said Fitzgerald Robertson II of Seton Hill University, whose company, Sensor4Safe, designed a system to alert car owners when a child or pet is forgotten in the vehicle. “Having those opportunities to see not only the differences but the similarities, the common threads and strategies and tactics we all use. It’s been very interesting and helpful.”

Both Robertson and Svigelj cited the keynote address from Richard Schulze, former CEO of Best Buy, on Thursday night as a highlight.

"He was incredibly humble," Robertson said. "Ethics and morality are at his core, and that’s something I appreciate and aspire to."

St. Thomas students Meghan Sharkus (ExpressionMed) and Sam Rystrom (FinMoto) also participated as two of the 25 finalists invited to e-Fest.