Tech Transfer eNews Blog

As innovation-focused competitions flourish on campus, best practices emerge

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: July 17th, 2019

The tide of competitions focused on innovation and entrepreneurship being sponsored by universities worldwide is nearing flood stage. Business plan competitions, student start-up contests, faculty pitch fests, and Shark Tank style events have become a regular part of campus life. But are they worthwhile, and if so how do you wring the greatest value from them? After all, staging an effective competition on campus requires considerable time, effort and resources, so why go to the trouble when there are so many other priorities?

Evan Facher, the vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship and the director of the Innovation Institute at the University of Pittsburgh, observes that well-designed contests can deliver multiple returns, not the least of which is letting students and faculty know that the sponsoring organization exists. “Sometimes these competitions are kind of a beacon to let people know that hey, there is a place that is doing these [innovative, entrepreneurial] things,” he says.

In addition to their promotional value, competitions can also extend a university’s educational reach, providing a “low-touch” way to introduce students to what a pitch is or what commercialization is all about, explains Facher. “[Students] are not committing to a full semester, three-credit course where they are going to be spending hours and hours every week doing [these commercialization] activities, but it still allows them to explore opportunities in the space,” he says. “It [enables] us to start educating a much larger number of people than we could if we did a purely class-based session.”

While some of the competitions the Innovative Institute sponsors focus on students, others require entrants to include a piece of university IP, and these sorts of contests provide Facher’s organization with an additional window to the innovation that is happening in university labs. “It allows us to identify technologies on campus that we may not know about or that haven’t necessarily come through the traditional invention disclosure system,” he says. “[Competitions] give us a way to better scour the universe of activity on campus to find technologies that may be interesting to us that haven’t been through the formal technology transfer approach.”

Of course, to reap all of these competition-related benefits, appropriate mechanisms and strategies need to be in place. For example, the Innovation Institute’s annual “Big Idea Competition,” the region’s largest student innovation and entrepreneurship contest, attracts hundreds of students who form teams and compete for cash prizes to advance their innovations. However, while all of the entrants can’t walk away with prize money, Facher makes sure he is prepared for the full spectrum of entries.

“We know we are going to get a number of things that aren’t going to be ready for prime time just yet, but purely from a numbers perspective, we know that we are going to get enough [entries] that are well curated,” he says. “The wheat gets separated from the chaff pretty easily.”

While the best entries clearly have merit and the potential to win prizes, Facher sees opportunity in the less-developed entries as well. “It allows us to see the people that raised their hands, and while their ideas may not be ready for the finals of a competition, it lets us know that here is a collection of people that are interested in this,” he says. “Then we can deploy different resources to be helpful to them so that as they continue to look at commercialization or to look at other pitch competitions, they have a little bit more love and support that goes with them outside of the competition itself.”

While some people are not quite ready for the spotlight, the competition gives Facher and his staff a chance to reach out to them and expand the innovation ecosystem. “We want to have this pipeline of new people that are coming in as well as people that we have spent years training, because at some point in time the people at the end of the pipeline that we trained … are going to create a company, they are going to be graduating from the university or they are going to have their technology licensed,” he says. “Then we need another part of that pipeline to be coming in for us to train, and then in a couple of years they could be exiting the pipeline.”

A detailed article on best practices in innovation and entrepreneurship competitions appears in the July issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. For subscription information, CLICK HERE.

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