Innovation Challenge Kicks Off 10th Year of Events

Abhishek Dwaraki
Abhishek Dwaraki

UMass Amherst’s 2015­–16 Innovation Challenge kicked off on Oct. 28. This yearlong series of events has deep connections and a proud history on campus, and is back for a 10th year with new formats, more money on the table, and greater emphasis on mentoring and venture creation.

The Innovation Challenge has welcomed teams from engineering, the sciences, and beyond; provided a springboard for real ventures; and qualified the winning team for the finals of MassChallenge, a startup accelerator that has raised over $1.1 billion in funding, generated over $520 million in revenue and created over 6,500 jobs.

At the first event, more than 50 campus entrepreneurs and innovators participated in the UMass Amherst Innovation Challenge MinutePitch Competition. Thirty-six teams pitched their ideas to a panel of judges, and after three rounds, three teams emerged victorious. JamUMass, led by Ajey Pandey received $500. Snap-A-Deal, led by Matthew Schreibman and Michael Vinik, landed a second place finish and $750. The first place prize, and $1,000, went to the Glow, led by Abhishek Dwaraki.

The Innovation Challenge is one of the many ways the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship serves a network of scholars, innovators, and entrepreneurs across the UMass Amherst campus and throughout the region. The center is dedicated to connecting and inspiring game-changers and helping them realize their dreams. An array of programs and events is available to emphasize the connection of theory with practice and provide resources to support new-venture creation. The 2015–16 activities include underwriting the student event HackUMass, the Berthiaume Mentoring Service, and a new Coleman Foundation grant to bring entrepreneurial thinking into courses in journalism, public policy, sustainability and the ICONS program.

The Challenge events begin with the pitch competition, in which teams selected from over 60 applications each have one minute to pitch their idea and team to a panel of judges who score them in real time. Each team then gets immediate feedback from a mentor who suggests how to improve their presentation and fine-tune their business idea and provides constructive feedback and encouragement. The top five teams get to go back in front of the panel of judges, with each round affording them more time and feedback. Top teams are awarded cash prizes ranging from $500 to $1,000 to pursue expert advice, create a working prototype, or do research.

The Innovation Challenge continues in December with the UMass Innovation Challenge Seed Pitch (a closed-door event), more workshops, and a two-round final competition in the spring.

“Our goal is to get people to stop talking about ideas and to give them the resources and forum to do them,” says Bill Wooldridge, the Berthiaume Center’s director. “We want them to be agile and creative, incorporate feedback quickly, and come back stronger with each round.” Wooldridge points to the changes in this year’s contest as reflecting the Berthiaume Center’s dedication to inspiring, connecting, and supporting entrepreneurship across campus. He is looking forward to seeing the new ventures developed during the competition.

The Berthiaume Center was established in 2014 with a gift from Isenberg School of Management alumnus Douglas Berthiaume ’71 and his wife, Diana.