College-level pitch contest draws startup ideas from all corners


Alex Irlbeck pitches his startup idea to a panel of judges during a pitch-off for students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences on Feb. 26 in Curtiss Hall. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

For Alex Irlbeck and his partner, figuring out how to explain their startup in 90 seconds didn't just benefit the audience for their pitch. Distilling the description also helped sharpen the plan.

"When you get it so boiled down, it's easier to take a direction," said Irlbeck, a graduate student in agricultural and biosystems engineering (ABE).

Winning a little extra cash helps, too. Launching CattleTech -- a system for automatically tracking the weight and body types of herds -- got a boost after Irlbeck and his co-founder, fellow ABE graduate student Taylor Tuel, won $500 in a pitch-off competition for students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

But pitching startups has value beyond potential prizes or improved business strategies. It teaches students how to solve problems and tout their ideas in front of a crowd, even if the proposal is never more than an idea. That's partially why Iowa State's Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship expanded the opportunities for students to pitch, offering for the second year a competition in each college.

"It's public speaking, which a lot of students are scared of. It gets them out of their comfort zone to try something knowing they can fail. It's definitely an experience just in itself," said Diana Wright, Pappajohn Center program coordinator.

Ideas stirring

The College-by-College Pitch-Off was held throughout February, giving up to 25 students in each college 90 seconds -- plus follow-up questions afterward -- to win over a panel of judges. Two runners-up in each college received $250 prizes. Winners got $500 and a secured spot in tonight's ISU Innovation Pitch Competition (5-8:30 p.m., Memorial Union Maintenance Shop). They'll join up to 30 additional students to face off for a top prize of $1,000 and three additional $500 awards.

In the college-by-college contest, some pitches have their roots in coursework. Irlbeck and Tuel's idea was born in Engineering 434X, an experimental course titled Entrepreneurial Product Engineering Design Project.

Other inspirations are more personal and at varying stages of development. One runner-up in the Agriculture and Life Sciences pitch-off was a plan for a bar-specials app. Proposals included a cricket farming venture and a furniture upcycling firm that aimed to hire workers with criminal records.

Participation averages about 15 to 20 students per college, with Business and Engineering often filling up, Wright said. Hosting a competition in each college is a way to solicit ideas from students across campus systematically, even in fields where business-building aspirations are less common.

"It's fascinating to find out what students are working on, the ideas stirring around in their heads," Wright said.

More opportunities

The college-level pitch-off is one of several competitions the Pappajohn Center offers students interested in entrepreneurship. The Startup Pitch Event in the fall picks a winner to compete in a national competition. In the spring, the center participates in a statewide business-plan competition and hosts the team-based ISU Innovation Prize.

Interest among students is on the rise, in part because of President Wendy Wintersteen's focus on expanding entrepreneurship opportunities, Wright said. Competitions help identify students who might, for instance, be good candidates for the CYstarters summer accelerator program.

"It's a great recruiting tool," Wright said of the college contests. "It allows us to offer them support and guidance if they're looking to take the next step from there."

The assistance and encouragement Iowa State offers startup-inclined students is essential, Irlbeck said. It's difficult to carve out time to work on a business while also going to school. Competitions and mentorship help him commit to putting in the needed time.  

"I think it's one of the biggest reasons I'm doing what I'm doing now," he said.


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