Sponsored Content: The Innovation Institute: Final Round for Startup Competition Draws Dedicated Teams


Aimee Obidzinski

Pitt Innovation Institute, Randall Family Big Idea Competition ceremony held at the Connolly Ballroom, Thursday, March 23, 2017. 222398

By Andrew Tindall

There’s a student startup competition sponsored by Pitt Trustee Bob Randall and Pitt’s Innovation Institute happening right now, and you would not believe the innovation and creativity that the teams have brought to the table. You can see for yourself at the final judging on March 29, but we’ll try here to convey the excitement and anxious anticipation that’s been poured into this event.

If you’re not aware of the Randall Family Big Idea competition, here’s a nutshell description: a total of $100,000 in prize money, donated by Bob Randall and his family, is awarded to the top student startup ideas out of an initial field of over 100 teams composed of nearly 300 students of all levels, undergraduate and graduate, from across the University.

The Innovation Institute does its part to help the teams forge their ideas by providing mentors to sharpen up each individual presentation. Matthew Hyre, half of the marketing startup team “I2 Iconic,” says that it’s “like going to school all over again.”

This year’s competition, which is the 10th anniversary, is well underway. The most recent event was a round of judging on March 2, where each team gave a five-minute PowerPoint-assisted elevator-speech presentation on its startup idea and then had a seven-minute Q&A with three judges. This separated the wheat from the chaff, determining which teams would continue in the competition, get a mentor assigned by the Institute, and enter the final round of judging on March 29.

But the finals didn’t seem to be on anyone’s mind at the judging on March 2— there’s something about an imminent high-stakes presentation that keeps your thoughts in the moment. Before being judged, most students had the quiet concentration you see outside exam rooms. It doesn’t seem like an exaggeration to say there was literally tension in the air, as small sets of sharp-dressed students displaced each other in the judging rooms.

The staid focus wasn’t just coming from the competitors either. The handful of judges included local entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and others in the regional innovation community. They have had to impartially appraise a long string of 12-minute presentations/Q&A sessions from all of the student teams we mentioned earlier, keeping track of projected revenues and market shares, production costs, and the je ne sais quoi present with someone who speaks and moves like a young entrepreneur. They ask pointed questions, staying gracious and polite without letting anything slip by unexamined. It’s a lot like Shark Tank.

Babs Carryer, director of education at the Innovation Institute, says that one of the best things about the teams this year is how much “passion and enthusiasm for disrupting old and outdated markets” she sees from all across the board in terms of fields, including “a lot of impressive insights into the healthcare market.”

But no matter the market, there seemed to be room for teams to excel, as long as they brought a good idea to the table and the ability to pitch it well. You can see all of the different teams and ideas on March 29, which is free and open to the public at the Charity Randall Theater inside the Stephen Foster Memorial.

But if that’s not soon enough for you, you can also vote right now for which team should win the Best Video prize. Video voting kicks off on March 16, so you can get right to it. Pre-registration for the final round, which is open to all, is available online at go.innovation.pitt.edu/rfbicshowcase2018. See you there.

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