Da Vinci Center to host student inventors competition

Maya Earls
Spectrum Editor

The Venture Creation Competition will begin Feb. 3 at VCU for its third consecutive year, encouraging students to take chances on new ideas for cash prizes.

The da Vinci Center at VCU hosts the competition. Combining the lessons of the School of the Arts, Business and Engineering, as well as the College of Humanities and Sciences, the da Vinci Center strives to enhance innovation and entrepreneurship abilities in students.

The Venture Creation Competition began in 2012 with student teams submitting ideas for new products, businesses or services to the da Vinci Center. The competition is divided into three stages. Stage one is venture description. Each team must explain the market for their idea, the technology involved, the costs of production and the product or service offered. Director of the da Vinci Center Kenneth Kahn, Ph.D., said entering the competition is one of the most difficult steps.

“The first challenge is having the confidence to enter,” Kahn said. “But if you take a little risk, something big can happen.”

Winning submissions of 2012 included flavored ice cream cones, a new bike rack system and software and hardware that would help people with asthma. Students who felt strongly about their ideas had a better chance of going far in the competition, Kahn said.

“Really it’s the student’s passion behind that idea, and actually showing how you can make it real,” Kahn said.

School of the Arts graduates Angela Melito and Moria Nisbet were finalists in the 2012 competition, winning $1,000 for their concept of a 24-hour store offering art supplies and print services. For the first step, Melito created a survey online to gauge the market for her team’s idea, and she looked at locations available in Richmond for the storefront.

“We were no longer really talking hypothetically,” Melito said. “We were saying this is where we would go, this is how much we would need.”

Even though she had participated in similar projects in the past, Melito said the competition was more challenging and in-depth.

“I really had to put my thinking cap on and think about what the concept process would be,” Melito said.

After reviewing submissions, judges will select semifinalists to move on to the next round. For the first time in the competition, semifinalists in the second round will create a business model canvas instead of a business plan. Kahn said VCU is just one of many who are changing their focus to business models.

“Many schools are now going to business model generation,” Kahn said. “It’s actually less writing but more thinking.”

Within the business model, teams have to explain resources, partnerships and cost structures. Finalist teams selected will present their research in front of a panel of judges. There are a variety of judges participating in the competition, from local bankers and entrepreneurs to top level business executives. Kahn said one of the most important benefits of the competition is the opportunity to make connections.

“The big outcome is highlighting yourself in front of these people, because some of them might want to invest in your idea,” Kahn said.

Last year, the competition added a graduate division. The winners of the graduate division were Olugbenga “Tumi” Oredein and Eric Pankey, also known as the Skribs team. Their invention later won the grand prize in Wal-Mart’s “Get on the Shelf” competition. Currently, a company belonging to one of the judges in the Venture Competition will manufacture the Skribs wristbands. In an interview with VCU news, Oredein said he could hardly contain his excitement about winning Wal-Mart’s competition.

“I found out on (a) Thursday when I was at the gym,” Oredein said. “I was on the elliptical (machine) and nearly fell off.”

Even though parts of the Venture competition were difficult, Melito said overall she enjoyed her experience.

“If you end up pulling it off … you get really impressed by yourself,” Melito said.

Overall, Kahn said he wants the competition to create a university-wide environment of innovation and entrepreneurship.

“My interest is that this becomes a mainstay event,” Kahn said. “It helps reinforce the fact that we can make VCU really mean Venture Creation University.”

Electronic submissions for the 2014 competition must be sent to the da Vinci Center by noon on Feb. 3. The finals will be held April 23, where two $4,000 grand-prize winners will be announced.

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