Big Ideas Abound at UT Dallas Startup Pitch Competition

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Innovation requires change, a concept on ample display throughout 2017 in entrepreneurship programs at The University of Texas at Dallas. The campus community has witnessed notable transformations in UT Dallas innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives, including the startup pitch competition, academic programs and rankings.

Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Executive Director Steve Guengerich  opened the competition.

Early in the year, Steve Guengerich took the helm of the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (IIE). Then Blackstone LaunchPad, the campus startup initiative, opened its doors. More recently, the MS in Innovation and Entrepreneurship program at the Naveen Jindal School of Management rose three places to No. 19 in The Princeton Review Rankings (see MS in Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program Climbs Three Spots in Princeton Review Rankings, below). Along the way, the Jindal School partnered with the J. Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science to develop an innovative Computer Science Software Launch Track (see Entrepreneurship Ramps Up Across Campus, below).

In keeping with this spirit of innovation, the Business Idea Competition was renamed the Big Idea Competition. The teams entered this year caught that spirit and pitched ideas worthy of the new name.

Competition judge Guy Kawasaki (left) and Interlock Partners executive Harry Hawks (right) present NeuroRehab VR pitch presenter Veena Somareddy, an ATEC PhD student, with the first-place $15,000 presentation check. 

Big ideas at the finals held Nov. 16 ranged from wearable robotics that help folks with knee injuries become more mobile to web portals that improve the food supply chain. Other competitors: drones that municipal governments can use to detect air pollution, and virtual and augmented reality tools that improve brain health and enhance leisure activities.

Presented by title sponsor Interlock Partners, the competition featured graduate and undergraduate students who vied for $40,000 in cash and scholarship prizes. Other sponsors and community partners included Tolleson Wealth Management, Capital Factory, the Dallas Entrepreneur Center, the Dallas chapter of TiE and MassChallenge Texas.

Top honors went to NeuroRehab VR, a company that develops virtual reality games to help patients recover from strokes, neurodegenerative diseases or traumatic brain injuries by using the brain’s neuroplasticity to develop new neural pathways.

Big Idea Competition judges (fom left) Guy Kawasaki, Jeff Williams, Courtney Caldwell, Julie Nickols and Bob Metcalfe

Judges were:

Guy Kawasaki, brand evangelist, author and speaker

• Jeff Williams, BS’87, a partner at Interlock

• Julie Nickols, an intellectual property attorney and partner at Haynes and Boone LLP

• Courtney Caldwell, MBA’06, co-founder of ShearShare; and

Robert (Bob) Metcalfe, Ethernet co-founder and professor of Innovation and Murchison Fellow of Free Enterprise in The University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering.

In addition to judging, Guy Kawasaki also delivered the keynote address.

In addition to his judging duties, Kawasaki gave the keynote address, sharing his top 10 tips on “The Art of Innovation.”

When asked about the quality of the competition, Kawasaki, a renowned Silicon Valley entrepreneur, put it succinctly:

“Very polished pitches, well coached, well-prepared, ended on time, answered all the questions,” he said. “Yeah, like being in Silicon Valley.”

According to Julie Nichols, the quality of the ideas — whether from graduate or undergraduate students — was so high that it made for a difficult deliberation by the judging panel.

Alta Air members (from left) Jason Tran, Konan Mirza and Yosias Kassaye impressed the judges with a sophisticated operation.

“We were all very impressed with how relatively far along the companies had come in a short period of time,” she said. “I was very impressed with Alta Air — for undergrads, that was a pretty sophisticated operation they've come up with.”

Alta Air, whose members were Jindal School sophomores Konan Mirza and Jason Tran, both finance and economics double majors, and electrical engineering student Yosias Kassaye, took home the third-place $5,000 prize and won $2,500 for the best undergraduate idea. Their concept involved a modular drone design with interchangeable sensors.

Elaine Wang, a Jindal School master’s in management science student, and Trusit Shah, a computer science PhD student, presented Cthrough, a mobile app that enhances the user’s experience at attractions such as zoos and museums. Cthrough, won the $10,000 second-place prize.

Cthrough team members Elaine Wang (left) and Trusit Shah (right) with Guy Kawasaki after the competition


Skyven Technologies founder and CEO Arun Gupta accepted the Biggest Social Impact Award.

Other winners included Skyven Technologies, which earned the $2,500 Biggest Social Impact Award, and UT Dallas’ Brain Performance Institute, which snagged the $2,500 award for the Biggest, Most Innovative Idea.

The judges unanimously agreed that NeuroRehab VR put forth the best idea of the day and awarded them the first-place, $15,000 prize. The team also took home the $2,500 Diversity and Inclusion Award.

To make her decision, Nickols put herself in the end user’s shoes and thought about the positive impact that a business such as NVR could have on people’s lives.

“We’ve all had experiences in our lives; people we can think of that could be impacted by something like that,” she said.

Kawasaki was impressed with the quality of ATEC PhD student Veena Somareddy’s NeuroRehab VR pitch. Kawasaki also imagined himself in the end user’s shoes.

“I think the smoothness of her presentation — also, it was easy to understand why it’s so helpful,” he said. “I'm getting towards that age; so, yeah, it was very relatable.”

Jeff Williams concurred with Nickols’ and Kawasaki’s assessments, although he looked at it more from a bottom-line perspective that an investor would utilize:

“It seemed like a real, plausible idea and company with the highest probability for success,” he said. “That’s important to us.”

For Somareddy, who co-founded NeuroRehab VR, the top honors brought additional validation for her team’s efforts.

“Virtual reality is new,” she said. “We’re trying to bring something that wasn’t already there. We’ve gotten validation from our patients and therapists. Now getting it from Guy Kawasaki and everybody else means a lot.”

The prize money, she said, will help the company hire developers, put together a sales and marketing team, deploy the applications to five clinics across the U.S. and ensure the applications conform to Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act — HIPAA — regulations.

Guengerich, energized by the success of the event, was quick to put it into perspective and to give credit to the people who helped make entrepreneurship at UT Dallas happen, Dr. Hasan Pirkul, Caruth Chair and dean of the Jindal School, and IIE founder Dr. Joseph C. Picken, in particular.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about the students and the learning experience,” Guengerich said. “I am just thrilled that we have the support from people like Dean Pirkul and Joseph Picken, who both helped cooked up this whole scheme to say that events such as this one are as important as what we’re doing in the Jindal School on the academic side.”

The academic and experiential sides of IIE complement one another mutually support and reinforce each other. Students who embark on entrepreneurship through Blackstone LaunchPad often enroll in the JSOM undergraduate and graduate Startup Launch tracks, and vice-versa.

Bryan Chambers, who directs Blackstone LaunchPad entrepreneurial programs at UT Dallas, was master of ceremonies for the Big Idea Competition. He was pleased with the “phenomenal” quality of the pitches, but was already looking to the future.

“Our faculty, our staff — we’ve got really big visions for where we think this event needs to go,” he said. “We plan to do it bigger and better next year.”

Jimmie R. Markham

MS in Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program Climbs Three Spots in Princeton Review Rankings

With all the razzle-dazzle on display at events such as the Big Idea Competition — the lights, the music, the video, the celebrity judges, the awards, the big checks — it can be easy to overlook that those poised, polished presenters on stage are students who have been undergoing rigorous classroom instruction taught by faculty members who are experts in entrepreneurship.

The Princeton Review and Entrepreneur Magazine have taken note of those efforts by placing the Jindal School of Management’s MS in Innovation and Entrepreneurship program at No. 19 in the Top 25 Best Grad Programs for Entrepreneurs in 2018 ranking list, up three spots from 2017.

Madison Pedigo, director of the innovation and entrepreneurship academic programs at the Jindal School, was pleased with the improvement in the ranking, which he attributes to a focus on continuous improvement.

“Each year, we improve our program in multiple dimensions,” he said. “This includes adding exciting new courses, increasing student enrollment and improving our already outstanding support programs, such as Blackstone LaunchPad and the Big Idea Competition.”

More than 300 schools that offer undergraduate and/or graduate entrepreneurship majors, minors, concentrations or degree programs participated in the 60-question rankings survey. The methodology for determining the rankings analyzed data points such as the number and amounts of scholarships, competitions and amount of prizes, mentorship programs, number of alumni startups and amount of funding raised, course options, student enrollment, number of entrepreneurship-related faculty and courses, student and faculty entrepreneurship activity.

J.R. M.

Entrepreneurship Ramps Up Across Campus

Momentum in entrepreneurship continues to build across the UT Dallas campus. Participation among Naveen Jindal School of Management students remains strong. But the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and campus innovation and entrepreneurship academic programs — both Jindal School-based — are seeing more partnerships between all UT Dallas schools and greater participation from engineering, computer science, ATEC and other students.

The institute’s 2017 Big Idea Competition highlights the growing participation, said IIE Executive Director Steve Guengerich.

Of the 144 students who entered the Big Idea Competition this year, 47 percent were from the Jindal School. But more than half — 53 percent — were students from other schools on campus. That represents more than 50 percent growth among non-JSOM participants over last year.

Another example of the widening interest in entrepreneurship is the Jindal School’s recent partnership with the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science in developing the innovative Computer Science Software Startup Launch Track, supported by Dr. Gopal Gupta, Eric Jonsson professor and head of the Computer Science Department at the Jonsson School. In the track, students interested in entrepreneurship can complete entrepreneurship courses that will count toward their computer science or software engineering degree.

“Students in the track will complete startup launch courses and participate in the CometX accelerator at the Blackstone LaunchPad and in the Big Idea Competition. These provide multiple opportunities for mentoring, funding and launch support,” said Madison Pedigo, director of innovation and entrepreneurship academic programs in the Jindal School.

For more information on the CS Software Launch Track, visit the Jonsson School or Jindal School CS Software Startup Launch Track web pages.

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