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Idaho Entrepreneur Challenge was a virtual success

screenshot of competitors.
The Idaho Entrepreneur Challenge looked a little different in 2020. But teams still competed and ideas still thrived – online. Photo provided by the Venture College.

The annual Idaho Entrepreneur Challenge, hosted by the Venture College in the College of Innovation and Design, gives aspiring business founders the chance to pitch their ideas, network, get advice from experts, and compete for seed money and other services. Community building is a key part of the competition, said Nic Miller, executive director of the Venture College.

When the event went online this year in early April because of the COVID-19 outbreak, no one knew exactly how that would work. But it did work, and even sparked some new ideas.

Twenty-three teams from colleges and universities across the state competed in four tracks: health and wellness, local services, product and technology. Twenty-two judges selected the winners. Teams from Boise State won three of the four tracks.

Crib Coaching, headed by Jill and Justin Bertelsen, won the local services track. The company provides in-person training for required daycare licensing as well as other online courses and consultations. Karmik Outdoors, headed by Robert Gillingham and Aaron Akins, won the products track. The outdoor gear recovery company sells decals with QR codes and unique ID numbers that help people find lost gear. Terroir A.I., headed by Phil Rowe and Nate Strong, won the technology track. The company helps farmers monitor crops, focusing on those that grow below or behind visual obstructions that can’t be monitored by drone.

Four track winners competed in the finals, pitching their ideas on Boise State’s Twitch channel with a technical assist from the eSports team. University of Idaho’s CatheterX, winner in the health and wellness track, won this year’s top prize for its design of a urinary catheter that significantly reduces infection. The win comes with an automatic spot in Boise State’s Startup Week pitch competition later this year.

A quick pivot

Once shutdowns and cancellations started happening because of COVID-19, competition organizers were forced to cancel their plans – hotel, travel, catering and everything else – and reconfigure the event to go online in a mere three weeks, said Miller.

“Looking back, I see how nimble and agile the Boise State team that rallied was,” said Miller.

Close to 500 viewers tuned in to watch the final pitch competition.

This year’s event offered new features, including the President’s Award. Boise State President Marlene Tromp recognized DermCare, headed by Tobi Popoola, a doctoral candidate in Boise State’s computer science program. The DermCare app, already up and running with 1,500 users in Popoola’s native Nigeria, connects people who have medical ailments with qualified doctors. The need for the app is urgent, said Popoola, in a country where it’s common for people to get incorrect medical advice from pharmacies, or even from friends – sometimes endangering their lives. The app also lets patients pay their medical bills remotely.

Tobi Popoola
Tobi Popoola, recipient of the inaugural President’s Award during the Idaho Entrepreneur Challenge. Photo provided by Tobi Popoola.

Pitching his idea online during the competition was tough, said Popoola. There were a few technical snags, but he praised the event, including coaching and practice offered by the Venture College and associate director Ryan Vasso. Popoola was a runner-up in the health and wellness track. Winning the President’s Award was a surprise, he said.

“Living and studying in Nigeria was really tough. I would stay up late sometimes, working without electricity, and in the heat. To get recognition is great. It validated my hard work and the effort I put in.”

During the competition, the Venture College set up a “virtual lobby” for competitors to ask questions, practice their business pitches and hang out. The online space was such a success that the Venture College will continue to offer online “community and office hours” from 3-5 p.m. every Wednesday. Students and community members can talk with mentors, entrepreneurs, share ideas and get feedback. Go here for more information and to register.

Will this year’s success mean that the Idaho Entrepreneur Challenge will go online permanently?

“In person is still preferred,” said Miller. “But this showed us that we can deliver a quality event and content virtually. It was a confidence boost. The learning experience for everyone was high quality.”

Service to the community in hard times

The college also is continuing its two new online series, Survive to Thrive and Side Hustle.

  • Survive to Thrive: A partnership with Trailhead and aims to help businesses impacted by COVID-19 by connecting them with resources and advisers. Guests have included Mark Solon from Techstars, Christian Pennington from the Small Business Administration, Shawn Miller from Boise State, members of the local startup community, Rod Morris, co-founder of Lovevery, and Michelle Crosby, founder of Wevorce, and others. Find past sessions on the Venture College YouTube channel here.
  • Side Hustle: This series focuses on people who have built their businesses remotely and aims to help those who may need to supplement their income during these uncertain economic times. Guests have included Boise State alumnus Alex Jangard, founder of Heart of Timber and Whitney Hansen, another Venture College and Boise State alum, who is the founder of the Whitney Hansen Company and host of the podcast Money Nerds. Watch Side Hustle sessions here.

– Story by Anna Webb