November 22, 2016, BY Samantha Wallace

It was the frustration of losing a pair of pricey sunglasses that gave Reid Sanchez '18 the idea for connecting people to their lost items, and not just because he was missing a favorite item — even if the person who found the sunglasses wanted to return them, how would they ever find the rightful owner?

"Life doesn't have a lost and found," the mechanical engineering major said as he told the story to those gathered in the Terrace Room for Bucknell's fifth annual BizPitch competition, the signature event of the Bucknell Small Business Development Center (SBDC). "So we thought, 'Why not create one?' "

It was an idea that led to the development of the SearchParty app, a way to connect an identity to lost items and encourage others to return them. A SearchParty user simply affixes a tiny adhesive tag to a personal or valuable item — think wallets, keys and cellphones — and sets up a profile with contact information. If the item is lost, whoever finds it can scan the tag with a phone and find out instantly who it belongs to — and how they can return it.

BizPitch judges and SearchParty team members, L-R: Michael Driesen '18, Martin Gilliard '99, Elizabeth Mascali '89, P '17, Levi Adair '18, Tomas Salaverria '18, Sami Golaski '18, Brian Mulhall '89 (back), Susan Lattmann '90, Michael Dermer '90. Not pictured: Reid Sanchez '18. Photo by Gordon Wenzel

It was enough to impress the judges at BizPitch and hand SearchParty the $2,000 first-place check. BizPitch offers student entrepreneurs who have formulated ideas for business ventures the chance to flesh out their concepts and develop prototypes or beta models in the weeks and months leading up to the competition, with resources available through the SBDC that include help developing business plans and practicing presentations. During the final competition, each team has five minutes to pitch their business to a panel of judges, who take a few minutes after each presentation to ask questions.

Winners garner prize money and memberships in StartupLewisburg, also known as the Bucknell University Business Incubator, for furthering their business. First place takes home $2,000 and a free year of membership in StartupLewisburg, while second and third place receive a free semester of membership and $1,000 and $500 prizes, respectively.

Previous BizPitch competitors have used these prizes — and the experience of the competition itself — to grow their businesses into full-time endeavors, said SBDC director Steven Stumbris, who noted that several student companies are current members of the business incubator. Contestants also can win $500 as the Fan Favorite, via live polling on smartphones after presentations have wrapped and before awards are handed out. || Where are they now? Meet past contestants who found real-world success

Since 2012, the competition has grown in both size and scope, not only attracting more student competitors, but also those whose businesses have moved well beyond the idea stage. This year's contest featured an app that has more than 300 downloads ahead of its beta launch, while another has been up and running since April 2015. || Watch 2016 BizPitch highlights 

"The competition began as concept driven, but it has started to lean more toward contestants who are running their own companies, which is incredibly impressive for college students," Stumbris said.

The six teams for BizPitch 2016 comprised nearly 20 students, chosen from a field of 12 initial teams. SearchParty wasn't the only app in competition; five of the six finalists pitched apps that offered a wide range of services, from listings of campuswide events to a "community radio station" that allows users from all over campus to add songs to streaming playlists. Another finalist showed how drone photography could be utilized by construction companies or commercial real-estate developers.

"There's a variety of products and services every year, which reflects the variety of our student body," Stumbris said. "What we saw this year was the repeated theme of using social media to connect with the community in many different ways."

New to BizPitch this year was a Facebook Live event held at the SBDC on Nov. 10, which saw each team interviewed by a member of the Bucknell Student Social Media Team. The competitors encouraged friends to watch, comment and share to help them work toward earning the $500 Social Media Star prize at the final competition. The event had more than 2,500 views, 150 comments and 120 shares on Facebook.

The judges, all Bucknell alumni, were tasked with choosing a winner, ranking the presentations on everything from innovation to feasibility to "wow" factor. It wasn't easy, according to several judges, but they said it was a great experience to come back to Bucknell and see what students are engaged in.

"I was very happy to be invited and to see what these students are doing, which is frankly very impressive," said Susan Lattmann '90, chief financial officer of Bed Bath & Beyond.

Brian Mulhall '89, retired vice president of Pharma Services, agreed, saying that he was "very excited to be a part of BizPitch" — even if it was difficult for the judges to name one standout among the talented finalists.

"The voting was closer than you'd expect, but (SearchParty) shone in terms of being in-depth with its presentation and its feasibility," he said.

As for Sanchez and the rest of the SearchParty team, they want other Bucknellians to know that the entrepreneurial spirit is well supported at the University — and that with resources like the SBDC at their disposal, they can take their idea to the next level.

"We only started this mid-semester," said Sami Golaski '18, accounting & financial management. "If you have an idea and you think you can't do it, you can."