The founder and president of Innovate WithIN says the annual high school pitch competition has gone from just a fun event to something that has a bottom-line impact for young entrepreneurs. Don Wettrick says the competition is the largest of its kind for high school students in the country and designed to give young innovators the chance to see problems as opportunities. “We have basically scaled and grown, but we want to hit more students to where they’re wanting to come up with an idea, meet with their Small Business Development Center, in many cases, after round two and then be able to pitch a real idea to grow and scale Indiana’s economy,” said Wettrick.
Wettrick and one of the winners of this year’s competition, Zion Dunaway, appeared on Inside INdiana Business with Gerry Dick to talk about the competition.
In the 2021 event, Wettrick said while the origin of the competition was focused on ideas, this year’s event saw all of the finalists with at least a good, working prototype. More and more, he’s seeing the winning students invest their winnings back into their companies.
“We have invested money in our students so they can invest in Indiana,” said Wettrick. “We want our kids to be able to treat this absolutely like it’s real, because it is. And then also, our university sponsors are just salivating at the idea of getting students like this to possibly, if they’re not ready yet, to continue their journey at their institution.”
Dunaway and his brother, Xavier, won this year’s competition with their company, Southern Indiana Bait Co. The students from Salem High School in Washington County have developed bait for recreational, semi-pro and professional anglers. Each of them received a $10,000 cash prize, $10,000 toward future education, as well as mentoring services and internship and additional scholarship opportunities.
Dunaway says he and his brother wanted to bring something to market that they didn’t see themselves, “which was the customizability of [the bait], as well as durability and we’ve taken plastics from several different manufacturers to make our own blends that gives the action to each specific bait that we make, as well as maintaining the durability that we want ourselves.”
After winning the competition, Dunaway says the feedback from the company’s products has been very positive.
“Starting out, we did it as a hobby and we kind of said, ‘Well, this is something that we can really take off with,'” he said. “And so we started bringing it to local fisherman at local tournaments and stuff and everybody was really impressed with the quality of it and customizability we offer.”
This year’s Innovate WithIN event saw applications from 75% of Indiana counties and Wettrick says he hopes to grow to 100% with the next competition.