The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Growing Innovation

UMass competition feeds the ‘entrepreneurial ecosystem’
  • Sneakers for Success (2012) recipients of the first annual David Wolf Prize.

Since 2005, the competition has awarded over half a million dollars, contributed entirely by private donors, to 65 different student-led teams.

From the early inventions of Benjamin Franklin to the widely popular innovations of Steve Jobs, ingenuity has long been the cornerstone of American society. The UMass Innovation Challenge (IC) serves as a catalyst in the creative equation—a supporting role that guides emerging innovators through the process and fast-tracks them into the business world.

Since 2005 through the April 2013 challenge, the competition has awarded over half a million dollars, contributed entirely by private donors, to 65 different student-led teams. Each year, students and alumni join together across disciplines to develop marketable innovations and compete before a panel of private-sector judges. Sponsors are represented on the panel, and include Wolf Greenfield, Saint-Gobain, Cantor Colburn, Cisco, Raytheon, and Saul Ewing among others. Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement Mike Malone and biologist Lawrence Schwartz, the Eugene M. and Ronnie Isenberg Distinguished Professors of Engineering and Integrated Science (respectively), oversee the competition along with UMass Innovation Challenge director Heather Demers.

“What I have found in my career: student start-ups…they really get the entrepreneurial excitement going on a campus, and it affects everybody,” says Fred Reinhart, an IC mentor and director of the UMass Amherst Office of Commercial Ventures and Intellectual Property (CVIP).

The Challenge is designed to replicate the real-world business pitch experience in a secure, encouraging environment. Starting in September, IC events are staggered throughout the academic year. Fall and spring “MinutePitch” events are an easy way to test out innovative ideas prior to developing a formal business plan. At the next level, the “Executive Summary and Elevator Pitch Competition” challenges participants to take preliminary steps in formulating their business models and evolve methods for ‘pitching’ their ideas, while the “Mini-Plan Competition” is a closed-door, boardroom-style event during which contestants compete to be selected as one of the final five teams.  The monetary awards increase dramatically throughout this process, culminating in as much as $50,000 at the “Final Business Plan Competition” in the spring.

Panel judges include industry leaders and alumni interested in nurturing new innovations and contributing to the creative process. As the judges scrutinize the teams’ business plans for commercial potential, commitment, originality of ideas, technical feasibility, and high-growth potential, the IC serves as an opportunity for judges and industry spectators to recruit promising students and alumni. Engineering alum and IC judge Michael Mahoney, Manager of Corporate External Venturing at Saint-Gobain, says that he and the other judges also participate in the competition to “give back.”

The IC contestants have a number of entrepreneurial resources at their disposal, including faculty advisers, CVIP experts, and the Isenberg School of Management’s Center for Entrepreneurship. IC sponsors provide coaching and mentoring that give teams “real-world” perspective and, as they advance, meaningful networking connections. IC community sponsor Karen Utgoff notes, “As sponsors, we do our best to give each team feedback and guidance on critical business issues as well as a network that, when the time is right, can facilitate their efforts to build the business.” Teams are coached in complicated areas such as finance, intellectual property, and how to pitch an innovation. Contestants have the opportunity to sharpen their networking skills and learn step-by-step how to bring their ideas from the drawing table to the boardroom table.

“Prize or no prize, they walk away with a plan and have learned a lot about the innovative process…it’s truly a win-win for everyone involved,” says Demers.

Since 2005, the IC has launched many young entrepreneurs on the path to success. Some former contestants have landed upper-level jobs from their participation in the IC, like 2009 contestant Tracy Heckler Panzarella. Now the Senior Research Engineer at Saint-Gobain, Panzarella competed as part of team QD Tech—a group that aimed to ‘bridge the gap’ between current and next-generation solar cells by increasing the efficiency of current technology by 5 percent (while maintaining low cost). Others, such as 2007 contestant Brian Mullen of Therapeutic Systems, developer of the “Vayu” vest that provides a therapeutic benefit for autistic children, have carried their IC business models through to start their own companies. Still others have sold their innovations to larger companies, like 2009 contestant Conor White Sullivan of Localocracy, who sold his voter-based online civic engagement platform to the Huffington Post.

The IC leadership team encourages any collaborative group (with at least one full-time UMass student or recent graduate) to participate in the challenge.  The more enthusiasm surrounding the events, the more its revitalizing effects will ripple out into the broader community.

“The broader impact of the IC is that it becomes part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem on campus, which is growing…there’s a dozen points of light, here. It’s great to see,” says Mahoney.

Amanda Drane ‘12