A challenge for innovators at ASU


Graphic by Noemi Gonzalez

With the sun rising over the Polytechnic campus in southeast Mesa, hundreds of students prepare to spend the day picking the brains of some successful entrepreneurs to advise them on their journey toward materializing their ideas that earned them a spot in the day’s festivities. The talent that these students possess is evident to everyone in attendance at the Changemaker Central Startup Summit.

The energy is high at the welcome session in Aravaipa Auditorium, and the student participants in the ASU Innovation Challenge are prepared to start the program strong. Throughout the day, these student visionaries meet with successful, established entrepreneurs in the form of workshops, mentor session and information sessions.

“The groups of people here today are the people who really care to make a difference, everyone’s here for the same reason,” says technology entrepreneurship and management junior, Jake Slatnick in his opening remarks at the welcome session. “So reach out today, and you never know how the people you meet today are going to help you in the future.”


The students participating in the Innovation Challenge submit applications with ideas for positive social change through a business or organization plan.

The Startup Summit, a full day conference on Jan. 25, was the first round for participants after submitting their applications, and all applicants are invited to attend. At the conclusion of the day’s events, 30-40 finalists are selected and those finalists go on to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges. The judges then choose finalists and these students or teams can receive funding of up to $10,000 to make their idea a reality and take action on their business plan.

Regardless of whether or not the students make it through to the second round, this program is designed to be beneficial for them.


“We have five to ten incredible entrepreneurs and they’re all leading sessions and they are planned specifically to give students the opportunity to go to four that will give them a well-rounded view of what they need to know,” Slatnick says. “So this is like a four session crash course into successfully growing your business or getting to the next step, whatever that might be.”

The Innovation Challenge attracts students with many different types of endeavors, at all different stages of development. Sustainability and supply chain management senior Kevin Keleher and sustainability seniors Aaron Young and Thomas Verderame represented their organization GreenLight Solutions, which provides student sustainability consulting. In the program they received advice in their mentor meetings about how to improve their existing organization, the way they present their ideas and how to make a difference locally before expanding outside Arizona.

“I think our big takeaway was to pitch it differently. The first time that Kevin gave his elevator pitch, I would say the one criticism that stood out was that there wasn’t enough emotion,” Verderame says. “Then with the second pitch that Kevin did, he restructured it and the first three sentences completely changed the undertone. They put passion into it; it was such a better result.”

Sustainable solutions graduate student Andrew Lane attended mentor meetings with the students from GreenLight Solutions to receive guidance from the mentors on his sustainability endeavor as well. Lane is looking to bring a program called TerraCycle to ASU. This organization gives people a way to recycle materials that are not accepted by city recycling centers so that they can be made into a different product, helping achieve zero waste.


“TerraCycle pays two cents each to a nonprofit for everything — all these weird freaky things you can recycle, like a pen when it’s out of ink, you can send anything you write with,” Lane says. “A lot of people think it sounds too good to be true, a lot of people think that, but they don’t want any money, there’s no down payment or investment, all you need is some sort of device to put your stuff in.”

The Innovation Challenge also benefited media arts and sciences graduate student Alex Abreu and assistant nutrition professor Dr. Christopher Wharton. Together, they are working on developing a web-based solution called Verifarm to help small farms gather data for food safety regulations to increase efficiency. Their planning is still in the early stages, so they benefitted from the mentor meetings and seminars to help strengthen their plans.

“We had an initial idea of where competition might be and what we might have, and we were overlooking a clear and important area that one of our mentors pointed out to us,” Wharton says. “So they gave us a sense of where else to look to make sure that what were thinking of is differentiated from what’s already out there. So that’s one lesson for sure.”

Electrical engineering freshman Ngoni Mugwisi shares his aspirations to make a campus-wide difference at ASU. He presented his idea to start an organization to educate students about saving food on campus.

“In the short time I’ve spent here I’ve seen a lot of food being wasted and I think that’s quite unnecessary,” Mugwisi says. “So I’m studying this initiative to see what we can do about that, because no one seems to be talking about it.”

Although Mugwisi’s venture did not advance him to the second round of the challenge, with some of the advice he received at the Startup Summit, he registered his organization as an ASU club called Diners We Care.

As a learning experience for all participants, this program gives students the opportunity to practice producing a business plan and executing it, regardless of the stage of their project.

Whether the venture won funding and made it to the second round or not, the Innovation Challenge and the Startup Summit are great learning experiences for student entrepreneurs, enabling them to network early and learn the skills necessary to be successful in their future ventures, whatever those may be.

Reach the reporter at samantha.stull@asu.edu or on Twitter @Samantha_Stull2.

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