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Students pitch business ideas at competition

lane perry and blossom steem

Lane Perry (left), assistant professor in the College of Business, with the Blossom Steem team, who took first in social enterprise track of the 2024 Student Innovation Showcase Pitch Competition

By Chaz Lilly

At the 2024 Student Innovation Showcase Pitch Competition, students from across Western Carolina University brought their entrepreneurial minds together to share new business ventures.

 Similar to the show “Shark Tank,” students had the opportunity to share ideas with a panel, receiving feedback along the way.

Bethany Davidson and Wendy Cagle, both College of Business faculty, were the official coordinators of the event.

“The College of Business sponsors this activity annually to encourage innovation across campus,” said Cagle, associate instructor. “AJ Grube, dean of the college, opens the competition up to all WCU undergraduate students to encourage interdisciplinary teams to work together on innovative ideas. Students or teams are assigned a faculty mentor to assist in the development of their business ‘pitch.’”

Cagle also credits faculty members Lane Perry and Yue Hillon as an instrumental part of the team that helped with the event.

“Pitch competitions are like nothing else in our toolbox for entrepreneurship education,” said Lane Perry, assistant professor in the College of Business. “They push budding entrepreneurs outside of their comfort zone. Anyone who has ever had a dream, an idea, a vision that they are trying to bring life to knows how scary it can be when you take it out of your head and heart and into the furnace of public opinion and perspective. The process of working to understand your idea so well that you can explain it under stressful conditions and time restraints, in a clear way, while also inspiring interest and evoking emotion in a mind of seasoned judges can be discomforting.”

The competition was divided into three fields, or tracks: business startup track, social enterprise track and product development track.

The winning team for the product development track included Alexander Judson, Alissa Kloppenborg and Jesse Nichols. Their product, Rho-innovations is a student-founded company in its beginning stages seeking to develop a new way to produce biologics, specifically insulin.

“Currently, it takes 8,000 pounds of waste to produce one single pound of viable insulin. Our process is estimated to yield 25% of that and with lower waste values, lower cost comes taking the cost of production down from roughly $32/vile to $8/vile,” said Kloppenborg, a junior mechanical engineering major from Bristol, Virginia.

The team has been working in the lab and plans to fully develop their proof of concept by the fall of this year.

The Rho-innovations team is composed entirely of NSF FLiTE scholars, a program that seeks to foster the development of future engineering entrepreneurs in technological innovation.

“This program has allowed us to develop the research we have already conducted and encouraged us to do the pitch competition,” added Kloppenborg.

Teammates Lidia Prieto de la Roca and Claudia Diaz, both from Asturias, Spain, are exchange students. They won the social enterprise track.

Roca is studying industrial management engineering, which is a merger between industrial technical knowledge and business management. Diaz is a mechanical engineering major.

“This semester, I'm taking two entrepreneurship courses which I'm enjoying a lot. I found them interesting and my teachers transmit to all their students their passion for entrepreneurship,” said Roca.

The two have developed a social enterprise named Blossom Steem, whose aim is to empower girls to develop their future careers in the STEEM field, breaking down gender barriers. 

“STEEM, with double E is our social venture proposal idea. We believe that a good STEM background must include an entrepreneurship mindset focused on creativity, innovation and problem-solving skills,” said Roca. “We have developed our webpage and own merchandise items. We ensured that our business was feasible by making a detailed business model which included four different packs for schools and home activities to promote the Blossom Steem culture.”

The Blossom Steem team credits Perry for his mentorship and guidance.

“I often remind my students that they will learn more about themselves spending an hour outside of their comfort zone than they will spending a lifetime inside of it,” Perry said. “These students stepped up, put their idea and themselves out there to learn, grow and develop.”

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