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Furman fuels innovation, champions first-ever statewide pitch competition

Paladin Pitch competitors, from left, Trent Stubbs '20, Lucas Bautista '22 and Queen Trapp '22 in February of 2020.

The shuttering of businesses throughout the state due to COVID-19 may give budding student entrepreneurs reason to put their ideas on the back burner. But Furman University Innovation and Entrepreneurship wants to make sure that doesn’t happen.

On November 18th, in conjunction with Global Entrepreneurship Week, Innovation and Entrepreneurship will convene the first-ever statewide pitch competition in South Carolina’s history with 15 colleges and universities representing over 120,000 students – SC Innovates 2020.

What started as a “what if” idea championed by Furman just over a month ago has quickly matured into a collaborative group of colleges and universities rallying together with support from the South Carolina Department of Commerce and South Carolina Research Authority.

Sam Ybarra pitches Spectrum Tiny Homes
Sam Ybarra ’22 pitches Spectrum Tiny Homes at Furman’s Paladin Pitch competition.

The state’s brightest beginning innovators will pitch their ideas via Zoom before an all-volunteer panel of judges and compete for up to $10,000 in cash prizes, start-up mentoring and some serious bragging rights.

“The competition represents a unique opportunity for our student innovators to receive an immediate, statewide spotlight on their social or entrepreneurial ventures,” says Bryan Davis, managing director of Furman Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “They can connect with other like-minded students and kick-start their venture with thousands in cash and professional resources to fuel forward progress of their ideas.”

Each cosponsoring institution brings $500 to the prize pool. So far, they include:

  • Benedict College
  • Clemson University
  • Coker University (Organizer for the lower region of South Carolina)
  • College of Charleston
  • Columbia College
  • Francis Marion University
  • Furman University (Organizer for the upper region of South Carolina)
  • Greenville Technical College
  • Medical University of South Carolina
  • Midlands Technical College
  • SC State University
  • University of South Carolina
  • University of South Carolina Upstate
  • Winthrop University
  • Wofford College

Just days into opening the pitch submission process, Davis said there are already over 40 student innovators in the mix, which will be pared down to 15 semifinalists by early November. The deadline for students to submit their names to compete is Sunday, Oct. 25, with a final pitch submission deadline of Sunday, Nov. 1.

Davis says the pandemic, oddly, has lent enthusiasm for the “catalytic event” and paved the way for cross-collaboration.

“I think the widespread use of virtual communication platforms right now has broken down invisible or manufactured barriers,” he says. “The idea of connecting with schools across the state to collaborate and jointly support something like this would have been logistically more difficult or simply just not really on anyone’s radar a year ago.”

More important than managing logistical components for the virtual event, Davis sees something else happening.

“In light of the craziness and uncertainty going on in the world, it just feels good to unite around a new idea or venture that can create positive impact.”

He points to a couple of Furman entrepreneurs who presented their ideas at the university’s inaugural Paladin Pitch competition, held in early 2020.

Queen Trapp ’22, who is majoring in women’s gender and sexuality studies and psychology, established a social outreach nonprofit called Mother Nature’s Gift to help middle school-age girls navigate the stressful onset of menstruation and remove its stigma.

Spectrum Tiny Homes is the brainchild of Sam Ybarra ’22, who is majoring in religion and sustainability science. Ybarra has formulated a set of building codes and specifications for affordable housing that serves those living with autism spectrum disorder. His winnings in February 2020 allowed him to move forward on a plan for placing a prototype home on Furman’s campus in 2021.

Projects like these and many more will be showcased Wednesday, Nov. 18, at 5:30 p.m. in the live virtual finale, which is free and open to all who register, and where the field of 15 will be winnowed to the top-five finalists then to one overall winner.

To sweeten the deal and to add a touch of reality TV flair, semifinalists and finalists will have an opportunity to win the hearts of the Zoom audience and $500 cash through a “people’s choice award.”

For Furman Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the competition is “right in line with the type of big impacts our institution is continually striving to deliver for our students and community,” Davis says.

“We want Furman to be consistently seen as the lead convener and champion for innovation and entrepreneurs,” he adds. “Helping to launch initiatives like this keeps us on that track.”

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