Life’s A Pitch
Vandals learn how to grow ideas into successful ventures
On one day each April, innovation and big ideas dominate the University of Idaho as students showcase their real-world solutions during a series of competitions that also transform the Moscow campus into a hub of ingenuity for hundreds of visiting high school students.
The Engineering Design EXPO and the Idaho Pitch and Business Plan Competition — part of Innovation Month each April at U of I — tackle global problems and have launched dozens of new Vandal-led businesses around the world.
The Bruce M. Pitman Center is home to EXPO — now 25 years strong. Students pack elbow to elbow into what is dubbed EXPO Hall to explore shared ideas and spark curiosity in the younger attendees.
EXPO drives teams of students to engineer a better elbow or solve water quality and dam issues, prevent cyberattacks and explore the future of robotics and alternative energy. The capstone projects are the culminating experience for undergraduates to showcase their skills as engineers.
For Matthew Harned, whose senior capstone project was part of EXPO 2018, such projects are exciting and provide opportunities to create novel solutions to industrywide problems. His team was tasked with providing solutions for industrial forklifts for industry partner Hyster-Yale Materials Handling. The functional prototypes are now with the company.
“Being able to work on real-world problems and provide solutions that can make a difference for the company, its bottom line and for its employees is so incredible. I didn’t realize I would get to do real work like this when I started at U of I,” Harned said.
While EXPO teams showcase their displays to the throngs pouring through EXPO Hall, other groups of students prepare to share their big ideas in a more intimate setting on the opposite side of campus.
Small Business Start with a Pitch
Idaho Pitch gives students a direct venue to sell their ideas to real-world investors. Student teams meet with dozens of judges including CEOs, business leaders, entrepreneurs and investors to share their pitches, demonstrate prototypes and compete for startup funding.
Students compete for significant startup funding at U of I’s event in addition to bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars through participation in the College of Business and Economics’ Idaho Entrepreneurs program and engaging in competitions around the region and nation.
Over the years, that prize money has supported dozens of startups and inventions, including the Mototrax snow-bike company, the nonprofit S H E | Style Her Empowered, The Forever Shower and Safeguard Equipment.
Safeguard started as an idea between fraternity brothers Tim Ledford, Brandon Bledsoe and John Thompson in fall 2015.
“Two of us were business students, the other was an electrical engineer. We had a desire to start a meaningful company,” said Ledford, who now serves as CEO at Safeguard. “At the time, we weren’t sure what kind of business, but knew it had to be something that we were attracted to and passionate about.”
That’s when the three seniors realized they each had friends and family working as utility linemen or around high-voltage power. Growing up, they knew the danger of the job and had been affected by family and friends who had been injured.
“As we started doing more research, we found out the true dangers that utility workers face. There’s a 1 in 50 chance of death in their lifetime career,” Ledford said. “In developing countries, the chance of death as a utility lineman is closer to 1 in 4, which is ridiculously high.”
Their idea was simple: Create a wearable device that could alert utility workers of the presence of a live power source and reduce the risk from shock. To make that idea a reality, the Safeguard team turned to the Idaho Entrepreneurs program (see related story). By spring semester, they had won $32,000 at regional pitch and business plan competitions.
After graduating in May 2016, the trio took other jobs while hoping to build up Safeguard. But, after about six months, they knew they needed to run the company full time. In November 2016, they pitched to a group of angel investors in Spokane and received their first major investment.
Eighteen months later, Safeguard launched its product — Compass — with five employees and an office in Post Falls. Along the way, Ledford, Bledsoe and Thompson have received support from U of I, regional investors and Avista Utilities — which Ledford said has been their biggest cheerleader.
“It’s about actually having an impact and making a difference in the world.” Daniel Robertson, Grand Challenge Scholars Program program chair
Finding answers to the world’s problems
Success stories like Safeguard’s are what U of I’s innovation programs are all about: Students finding solutions to actual industry problems.
That concept is the foundation of the College of Engineering’s Grand Challenge Scholars Program, which hosts an annual pitch event.
Now entering its third year, the Grand Challenge Scholars Program recruits 20-30 engineering students each year to tackle the 14 Grand Challenges of Engineering. The challenges — selected by the National Academy of Engineering — revolve around sustainability, security, health and joy of living.
“The Grand Challenge Scholars Programs is a way for students to transcend traditional academics, get their hands dirty solving a real-world problem that has real implications for real people,” said Daniel Robertson, program director and faculty in the College of Engineering. “It’s about actually having an impact and making a difference in the world.”
Students in the program include Kenny Sheffler, who examined ways to increase sustainability at U of I by creating an anaerobic digester. They focus on five skillsets: earning how to do research; working on an interdisciplinary team; having an entrepreneurial mindset; building social consciousness; and having a global perspective and cross-cultural understanding.
During the pitch event, the students work to sell their ideas to members of U of I’s Academy of Engineers — eminent engineers who are alumni or deeply connected to Idaho’s strong legacy of global engineering impact —including SpaceX co-founder Tom Mueller and former Micron CEO Mark Durcan. Private donations fund the winners, and last year the program awarded about $30,000, Robertson said.
The first graduates of the program will cross the stage during the spring 2019 commencement ceremony. Robertson is excited to see the future of ideas that have been developed by that first class.
“It’s not enough to generate a technological solution — you have to be able to propagate that around the world somehow,” Robertson said. “It’s not enough to just solve the problem and not be aware of the business side of things.”
Developing the Skills
Learning from all sides of developing a company — from business to marketing to engineering and everything in between — is an important aspect of the entrepreneurship programs.
It’s a lesson the Safeguard team has learned, too.
“We initially thought that when we created an innovative product that could disrupt safety practices, people would just come,” Ledford said. “They’d intrinsically want to buy a device that could save lives as well as money for corporations. That’s not the case. You must convince people, regardless of the invention, of its worth.”
The Idaho Entrepreneurs program helped him develop the skills to lead and sell his product, Ledford said. Students were constantly practicing their pitches with each other, sharing constructive criticism and pushing each other to be better.
“The judges at these pitch competitions were influencers and CEOs of large companies in Idaho. We were getting advice from some of the brightest minds in the state,” he said. “When they talked, we’d listen.”
Now they’re joining the ranks of successful startups from U of I, with another generation of event winners and big ideas right behind them. And like those who came before, Ledford said, they’re looking forward to building a company that gives back.
“Our vision is to save lives, give back, and encourage others to innovate in their community,” he said. “We wouldn’t be here today without all the people who poured into us from the University of Idaho and surrounding communities.”
Article by Savannah Tranchell, University Communications and Marketing
Published in the fall 2018 issue of Here We Have Idaho.