The early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic caused the participants in the Innovate WithIN pitch competition to pivot and make their pitches virtually last year. However, the co-founder and chief executive officer of The STARTedUP Foundation, one of the hosts of the event, says the competition has turned an obstacle into an opportunity for the high school students involved. Don Wettrick says the event, applications for which are open through the end of February, has seen tremendous growth.
In an interview with Inside INdiana Business, Wettrick said the students saw the pandemic as an opportunity.
“Last year, they were learning how to do breakout rooms and collaborate online just as everybody else was figuring it out,” said Wettrick. “If it’s our job to prepare students for the future, we were having a unique opportunity to get them to learn the tools of the future right then and there.”
Innovate WithIN allows high school students, either individually or in teams of up to three, to come up with an idea, develop it and pitch it to judges for a chance to win $25,000 in funding, scholarships and additional prizes.
This year’s competition has been extended to take place through June. Wettrick says once the February 28 deadline for applications passes, organizers will view each application, which includes an executive summary, a business canvas and a 2-3 minute pitch, and narrow them down to 10 competitors for each of the nine regions statewide.
The participants will then take part in regional competitions and the winners from each, plus one “wild card” participant, will take part in the state competition.
“So we take that top 10, we work with them over April and May (with) twice a week check-ins on Zoom or some other online platform,” he said. “Are you pivoting? Are you growing? Are you scaling? We introduce them to mentors. We have them start talking to their local Small Business Development Centers and then that way, by June, they will have had actual validation. They would have gotten feedback…and so by June, we don’t think this is going to be a conceptual, ‘I have an idea’ pitch competition, but more along the lines of ‘Here is what my service, product, event, app is and here’s where it’s going.”
As part of the expanded competition, organizers have added a free, optional course to introduce students to the entrepreneurial ecosystem, which Wettrick says will help address an equity and access problem.
“Inner city and rural students were having a harder time competing because they didn’t necessarily know some of the terms or what market validation was or some startup costs were,” said Wettrick. “We didn’t want a lot of students to miss out on an opportunity because they didn’t necessarily know some of the terminology.
Wettrick says the creation of the companion course led to 10 Hoosier universities offering scholarships as part of the competition. He adds the course is the first step toward the overall goal of the event.
“Some of these kids are able to see problems as opportunities and really I think that’s what the heart of Innovate WithIN really is. Can you see a problem as opportunity? Can you pitch a solution that is buildable and scalable?”
Last year’s Innovate WithIN winner was a group of students from Hobart High School who created The Remedy Glove, which was designed to give relief to people with arthritis.
You can learn more about the Innovate WithIN pitch competition, including how to apply, by clicking here.
Wettrick says last year’s students saw the pandemic as an opportunity.
Wettrick says the companion course aims to address an equity and access problem.