COBE's innovation competition is not business as usual

Daisy snuggles up as students make their pitch for their innovation to help return lost pets to their owners during the recent 2015 COBE/BB&T Business Innovation Contest. The group went on to win one of the judge's awards.

Radford University students are creative and innovative.

Not just a few, but many.

It became evident during the fall semester as 51 teams – that adds up to close to 220 students – signed up and competed in the inaugural College of Business and Economics (COBE) BB&T Innovation competition, a new endeavor by the college to spark creative and innovative thinking in the university's student community.

The idea was for students to develop new business ideas "that are lean start-ups," said COBE Dean George Low, "where a small amount of capital will get them off the ground."

Many enterprising students answered the challenge. To enter, teams submitted by the Nov. 5 deadline a video, no longer than six minutes, that clearly stated an opportunity or problem and explained how their product or service could help. Teams also submitted a one-page budget showing their business could be launched with $500 or less.

Students were required to build prototypes, such as mobile apps.

"That's not easy, and some of the entries were pretty impressive," Low said.

Teams competing in the inaugural event had no shortage of creativity, as was displayed on Friday, Nov. 13, when the final 12 teams presented their ideas in front of a live audience, many of whom were tweeting the event at #RadfordInnovates, and six business-savvy judges.

Five teams were declared winners later that night at a ceremony to honor their hard work and discipline to the project.

A mobile app for finding tutors, called Pomoc, created by Amanuel Dereb, Sarah Eckenrode and Olivia Fitzgibbon, took the Best Project award.

"It means so much to my team and I that we were recognized," said Fitzgibbon, a junior accounting and finance double major from Fairfax. "We put a lot of effort into this project and were ecstatic to see all of our hard work pay off. I believe the future for Pomoc is very bright and am so excited to be along for the ride."


Cash prizes ranged from $350 to $500, said Gary Schirr, who along with fellow marketing faculty member Maneesh Thakkar, helped organize and run the competition.

Other winners were:

  • Most creative idea: Pet Alert, a mobile app for finding lost pets
  • Best Graduate Entry: VAST, a social app for Appalachian Trail hikers
  • Best Social: Let's Get Moving, a two-week summer program to encourage kids to be active
  • Judges Award for Best Presentation: Radford Grub Grab, an app for making ordering food at campus restaurants more convenient.
Judges Mark McCaskill, right, asks a question of one of the teams that were pitching their innovation during the 2015 COBE/BB&T Business Innovation Contest. To the left is Calvin Barker, also a judge from BB&T

"I thought the quality of the 12 finalists was quite high," Schirr, said. "The judges were impressed and most indicated that they would like to be involved again." Thakkar added: "The ideas were diverse. Products ranged from mobile apps to drones to services and included social innovation as well as for-profit ideas."

One of the winning teams may go on a national business plan competition, Low said.

The new competition, which is to be an annual event, "fits right in line with COBE's strategy of innovation, analytics and applied learning," Low said.

"This competition is all three of those. It's a great experience for our students because innovation is required to develop a new business idea," the dean said. "Analytics are required to support the idea with marketing data, customer demand data and financial data. They have to ask: Will this make money? How much money do we need? Will this be attractive to investors?"

Low said Radford University alumni who are entrepreneurs and investors have expressed interest in the ideas developed by RU students.

"They want to hear these ideas because they're always looking for new ideas," Low said. "And they're always looking for new ventures to invest in."

Going forward, Low wants to see even more Radford University students take on the challenge of creating new, innovative businesses. And, he wants participation from many disciplines, not only COBE students.

"A lot of these students are going to end up starting their own business, so why not give them that opportunity while they're here at Radford?" Low asked.

Beginning next year, the dean wants a requirement in the competition rules stating each team must have a student who is not a business major. This year, teams received extra credit for having a non-COBE student on their rosters.

"Business students are good at commercialization of new product and services. They're not always as good at developing new business ideas," Low said. "That's where you need the creativity of, for example, the fashion student or the scientist who's in a lab developing a new concept."

The research is "very clear on this," Low said.

"The best new business ideas in terms of creativity and innovation are developed by teams with a variety of backgrounds," he said. "The wider the variety of ideas on a team, the more creative the eventual new product will be."

Eckenrode, one third of Team Pomoc, agrees with Dean Low.

"I think the fact that we all had different majors really helped fuel the ideas behind Pomoc," said the senior from Williamsburg, who is majoring in marketing and minoring in psychology.

"Amanuel is an information systems major, which helped us visualize our app and figure out the technology behind it all. Olivia is an accounting major who helped us understand costs involved and the best approaches to take. Finally, with my marketing major, I helped our team understand how to promote our product and how to make it aesthetically pleasing."

Low said COBE is considering offering in the spring semester a one-credit, team-taught course in which student teams can "work with faculty to start up their businesses and get coaching and investments to make it happen."

Dec 4, 2015