Innovation Prize helps entrepreneurs jumpstart businesses

“It’s just really crazy to think about, that as a college kid, I have five software developers working for me now,” said Phillip Gorni, member of last year’s winning team.


Jack McClellan

The Safety Scan team pictured working on their idea during the 2021 Innovation Prize.

The Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship will work to help students tackle global issues during the Innovation Prize, an event with a track record of jumpstarting student-run businesses.

“The Innovation prize is a weekend-long event that is open to any student, regardless of major,” said Megan Sweere, a program specialist for the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship. “It’s open to faculty, staff, community members, so really anybody is allowed to join us.”

The Innovation Prize takes place from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday at the ISU Research Park Core Facility and continues from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. The competition has contestants brainstorm ideas, build teams around their ideas and then put together a pitch for the final presentations.

The competition is split into three categories: AgTech, which focuses on increasing productivity of the agricultural system; EdTech, which focuses on developing more engaging learning experiences; and Global Impact, which focuses on improving the quality of life for people around the globe. Each category will have its own prize of $2,500.

“I would say the number one thing is networking with people who have the same mindset and want to start something,” Sweere said. “I especially encourage people who want to do entrepreneurship but don’t currently have an idea to participate because it’s a great way to either spark an idea or to join a team of somebody else who’s working on an idea that needs people to help them grow.”

One of the winning teams of last year’s competition had an idea to create software to help keep track of employees and safety equipment, called Safety Scan. Since last year’s competition, which took place in November 2o21, the Safety Scan team has continued to develop its idea.

“So our idea started as a grain bin sensor of sorts, but as we looked into it, we realized that it kind of already exists,” said Sarah Ng, a senior in industrial engineering and a member of the Safety Scan team. “So we pivoted to software that would help workers with PPE (personal protective equipment).”

Following last year’s Innovation Prize, the Safety Scan team continued to attend various pitch competitions across the country, raising money and awareness for their business while learning how to improve on their idea.

“I think the general goal of our idea has stayed the same; we always wanted to try and keep as many workers safe as possible,” Ng said. “How we would do that has changed quite a bit. Just talking to different people and talking to people in the industry, we’ve figured out what the industry wants and pivoted to see how we can meet those needs.”

Ng said the innovation prize provided a great starting point for the business. The Innovation Prize provided a venue to put together a team and get a solid start on their idea with insight from mentors and the judges of the competition.

“So over the past year, technically, we’ve raised $21,000,” said Phillip Gorni, a junior majoring in aerospace engineering and a member of the Safety Scan team. “Really what’s left of that is 10 grand that’s like, solely for the business. Just last week, actually, I onboarded five software developers, so now we have actual people that know how to code working on the project.”

The experience of starting and growing his own business is as valuable as the rest of his college education, Gorni said. Working as an entrepreneur in charge of his own business is an experience vastly different from most of what students will find during typical academic endeavors.

“So it’s amazing because technically I hired them; they’re like employees now,” Gorni said. “It’s just really crazy to think about, that as a college kid, I have five software developers working for me now, so it’s really awesome.”

People interested in participating in the Innovation Prize can register online on the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship’s website.