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In this year's Business Pitch Competition at Bucknell University, the reward grew bigger than the five teams of student entrepreneurs ever dreamed.
Held Nov. 11, the Terrace Room was packed with more than 100 students, faculty and staff — as well as current and past University presidents — there to watch businesses be born.
A.M. Studios, EZ-TAP, Ignite, Loco Labs and Power Fitness had already made it through a preliminary round that whittled a dozen teams down to five. Now they were pitching ideas ranging from digital IDs to video production to apps to a panel of alumni judges, each entrepreneurs in their own right. They alone would determine if the pitches paid off.
Bucknellians have long nurtured their entrepreneurial spirits. The Lending Tree, StellaService, Home Depot, Kiva.org, Y-Combinator and Integra Life Sciences are just a few of successful ventures launched by Bucknell alumni.
"The thing I valued most about my Bucknell education was the confidence I developed in being an independent thinker," agreed judge Lynne Anderson Kielhorn '87, co-founder of NovaKera.
Involving alumni in the BizPitch competition, now in its third year, is an important part of the entrepreneurial culture the University is cultivating, said Steven Stumbris, director of the Bucknell Small Business Development Center.
Other alumni judges were Luis Davila '03, co-founder of Liquid Claims; Mind the GAAP founder Scott Ehrlich '93; project management and capital projects consultant Chuck Boldt '72; and Richie Hyden '12, chief operating officer and co-founder of IRIS.TV.
"Providing alumni with the opportunity to share their experience with aspiring student entrepreneurs not only can give their ventures a chance to succeed, but it helps to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset at Bucknell," Stumbris explained.
As their Prezi and PowerPoint presentations flickered to life behind them, the budding entrepreneurs shared an obvious determination — though last-minute iPhone checks, throat clearing and tentative mic checks belied their nervousness.
As it turns out, the students need not have worried.
"I thought they all did a great job," said Ehrlich. "Every team was confident and poised, and their pitching skills were very impressive. I especially liked that a few of the teams had anticipated the types of questions that would come from the judges, and had prepared backup slides to respond accordingly."
President John Bravman made brief opening remarks to kick off #BizPitch14. Only a few groups had pitched when, impressed by their ideas and passion, he dashed off a quick email to Stumbris.
Though he was seated in the front of the room at the judges' table, Stumbris wisely chose to check his messages when the notification appeared on his phone.
"The email said John wanted to 'honor the work of our students' by doubling the checks," said Stumbris.
"Bucknell has focused significant energy on fostering an entrepreneurial spirit," Bravman said. "As I watched these students passionately embrace that spirit, I was inspired to provide the additional support."
Suddenly $1,500 turned into $3,000 for winners EZ-TAP, the team of all first-years. Austin Honigford '18, Kaelyn Taylor '18, Chris Ouellette '18 and Evan Harrington '18 were also awarded a free one-year Bucknell University Entrepreneur Incubator (BUEI) membership.
"We were amazed," said Honigford. "And extremely excited to see how invested in entrepreneurship the president of the University is."
In addition to a free six-month membership in the BUEI — a prize all remaining teams earned — runner-up Ignite, also known as Cole McCollum '17 and Alejandro Ramirez de Arellano '16, took home $2,000.
Third-place Power Fitness, made up of Henry Kwan '17, Maximilian Ororbia '17 and Li Li '16, got $1,000.
Loco Labs took the $200 Social Media Star title, and A.M. Studio was awarded $100 as a finalist.
In addition to Bravman's surprise gift, there's another aspect of this year's competition that has Stumbris excited.
"One of the most inspiring takeaways is that the winners — and indeed, all of the finalists — will be students at Bucknell for several years to come," he said. "I'm thrilled that the team of consultants at the SBDC will have the opportunity to continue working with them as they develop these pitches into ventures."