Rason Irvin’s team in the BizTech Challenge™, an entrepreneurial competition for students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities, came in second in 2019. He’s back this year to win $10,000 in funding and expert mentorship.
“What I like about the BizTech Challenge™ is that it gives me the opportunity to take ideas I’ve put down in my notebook or iPad and see if I can flesh them out, run with them, and turn them into reality,” Irvin says. “It also is fun to associate with like-minded individuals at the top of their game.”
Irvin has completed software development and project management internships at Uber, Disney, and Apple. Interning as a software engineer at Uber again while finishing his studies in computer science, he plans to graduate next spring. He is precisely the type of student the BizTech Challenge™ was made for.
WHY THE BIZTECH CHALLENGE™ MATTERS
BizTech Challenge™, developed by Nexus Louisiana, allows HBCU students to validate their business idea, build a real business and even win some cash.
From those who apply, five teams will be selected to pitch their business in front of a live audience and a panel of expert judges for a chance at up to $10,000. Finalists will receive mentorship, coaching, and a travel stipend for their trip to the event. Everyone who submits a pitch will get expert feedback on their business. The deadline for applications is Sept. 30.
The challenge focuses on innovations creating solutions for significant problems. Judges want to see students come up with apps, software, hardware, online services and scientific products that have the potential to change the world. It’s about thinking big and figuring out how science, technology, engineering, and mathematics can improve society.
BUILDING A BETTER WORLD
Irvin’s team set an ambitious goal in 2019. They pitched a magnetic piston engine that could retrofit public transportation systems. “It’s a cheaper alternative [to most engines that power public transit], and it’s a stepping stone to electrification,” he says.
They faced stiff competition. The winning team from Grambling State University had a business model for a mobile application, called MiEye, that alerts homeowners of structural risks and damage in real-time.
The pandemic caused the BizTech Challenge™ to be canceled in 2020. It’s back in 2021 and Irvin is as well. He’s convinced he’s ready to take that final step. “This year, we’re going to be first,” he says. “I’m already starting to get a team together.”
In this challenge, Irvin’s project will likely focus on cryptocurrency and financial education. “I always try to make sure to present something that is in tune with what’s going on in the world,” he says. “We want to be able to help people with financial literacy and invest in different things.”
Irvin encourages all HBCU students to apply to the BizTech Challenge™, not just those pursuing business or law. The experience can clarify what students may want to do in their careers and what roles they will pursue after graduation. “It’s really important to try,” he says. “The worst they tell you is no, and you’ll know what to expect as you move forward.”
RECRUITING THE RIGHT TEAM
The composition of a BizTech Challenge™ team is essential. Diverse skillsets are the bread and butter of a team’s success. Students must use the resources available at their universities to build a team of individuals who can handle all facets of the challenge. The competition organizers recommend each team be comprised of at least one STEM-based student and one entrepreneurship or business student.
Irvin partnered with a transfer physics student from Penn State interested in magnetic piston engines for his first team. This year, he’s working with a fellow student who is an excellent public speaker. “His presentation skills are better than mine,” Irvin admits, adding, ”[W]e’re going to have a great presentation.”
Teams validate their ideas with real people in real scenarios, getting actionable feedback from mentors to strengthen their business ideas. The competition judges want to know the answer to two critical questions:
Does the business address a problem customers really care about?
Will customers pay for the solution?
BUILDING THE BEST PROJECT
The BizTech Challenge™ wants a product or service design that incorporates a STEM-based element or platform such as a mobile app, software product, hardware product, SAAS or Internet-based company. They also seek products or services based on scientific research.
The product or service does not have to be a full working prototype. It should, however, have a minimum set of specifications or features allowing the team to collect data to validate the concept and its continued development.
Projects can be based on prior work, provided that work was completed by one or more students on the team or is an approved usage of the university’s intellectual property.
Teams will be required to provide a business summary along with a 5-minute elevator pitch video. Teams must submit the executive summary and pitch presentation by Nov. 1. “The waiting game is very scary because you’re doing other things,” Irvin says. “You’re going to school and stuff and hoping that you’ll get that email that you’re one of the top five teams that will present.”
The five teams selected to participate in the final pitch competition will receive stipends to travel to New Orleans for the big event on Friday, Nov. 26. Irvin’s team is ready, and he hopes to complete some unfinished business in 2021.
The BizTech Challenge™ is sponsored by Louisiana Economic Development, ExxonMobil, Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann, Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, Regions Bank, and First Guaranty Bank.