A student presents during the 2023 Pitch Competition. [Blaise Datoy]

April 27, 2023

Andrews University Hosts Annual Innovation Pitch Competition

On March 31, 2023, Andrews University hosted its second annual Pitch Competition. The event took place as a part of Innovation Week, which featured several events promoting student engagement and entrepreneurship.

Students presented their original business ideas for the chance to win in-kind and cash awards in support of their projects. This year, the contest was sponsored by 38 Wall Street, 52 Wall Street, 7th Day Productions, PatentHacks and the MA in Leadership-Social Innovation program.  

Matias Soto, director of the Office of Innovation & Entrepreneurship, states, “The second year of the pitch competition is significant because it continues to cement this program in the minds of our students and campus community. It shows we are serious about our commitment to support student entrepreneurs, and that we have the intention of creating an annual event that puts students on the main stage to showcase their dreams. Andrews University believes that students can become World Changers.” 

Both graduate and undergraduate students were invited to take part in the competition, either individually or in teams. Applicants were required to attend information and networking sessions before submitting their ideas through a standardized pitch deck. Each application was reviewed and assessed, and the semifinal competitors presented to a judging panel. The top eight teams from the semifinals moved on to the finals, which took place in front of a live audience at the Howard Performing Arts Center.  

A total of $40,000 worth of awards was distributed among the winners. In-kind awards from the Office of Innovation & Entrepreneurship and event sponsors included prototyping equipment, consultants, coaching, licenses, grant writing assistance, patent application assistance, and rental space. The event also included cash prizes in varying amounts. This year, the MA in Leadership–Social Innovation sponsored a new Social Innovation Award, made possible by the Fred Upton Foundation. The seed grant funded a total of $10,000 given as awards, which was split between two teams to aid in initiating their projects—one addressing wheelchair mobility and the other access to environmentally friendly resources. This award required projects to benefit Berrien County communities, with a focus on social entrepreneurship, advocacy and services.  

The panel of judges for the final competition included Joshua Sanabria, founder and CEO of GoArchitect, Joanna Theolene, policy manager for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Daniel Smith, founder of Keepingly and Fenomenale Group of Companies, Anthony Schaller, director of the Schaller Gallery, and Kimberly Pichot, dean of the College of Professions and founder of Connection Blitz.  

First-place winner of the competition was Josalynn Clark’s “Youth Discipleship Mission: Bible Mentorship Program.” Clark, who is currently studying to receive her MA in Discipleship in Lifespan Education, created the experience as an online day camp in New York in 2020. The program was made with the goal of bringing the community closer together, helping kids engage in fun activities, practice academic skills and grow in their spiritual journeys. It has since grown into a free summer day camp with multiple age categories. Because not every camper is an Adventist, Clark prioritizes making the experience positive for children of all backgrounds. “Once I started this project, I just fell in love with it,” she relates. “Coming up with things that will help people better themselves and help them pursue their dreams makes the [community] a lot healthier and a lot more stable.” 

After she found out she had won, Clark described, “It was all joy and excitement.” She plans to use the award money toward the budget for the upcoming summer program, hoping to open the door to more campers. In addition, Clark will begin the process of making the organization a nonprofit and hopes to implement some strategies for sustainability. Eventually, she hopes to open an Adventist youth center for greater reach and impact. She encourages other students to enter the competition, reminding them to read the fine print, get outside feedback, and prioritize the impact they can make on others, emphasizing, “Once you know something, it’s always good to share, because you never know how it’s going to benefit somebody.” 

The second-place prize went to the project titled “My Bible Comics,” created by Stanislav Kondrat, who is pursuing his PhD in religion, and Alexander Skibelsky, who is finishing his MA in religion. “The idea of ‘My Bible Comics’ is to create the best illustrated Bible stories in the form of comic books,” Kondrat describes. “I wanted to share Jesus with the unreached, where no missionary can go.” To this purpose, the team created a set of multilingual digital comics accessible through an app, so that stories from the Bible could be shared across the world. Skibelsky, who was previously both a pastor and an illustrator, enjoyed the opportunity to combine his skills. He notes, “This project is a pinnacle of who I am. In addition, it’s all about impact. With this project, I want to influence millions.” 

At the competition, the team enjoyed the opportunity to test out their idea, receive feedback on their project, and network with like-minded people. When they learned they had won second place, they felt incredibly validated and excited about the future of their project. In the future, they plan to use their award funds to finish creating their app, set up a website, develop merchandise, and hire colorists to streamline the creation process. In 2025, they will bring their project to the General Conference in St. Louis. They affirm, “We want to encourage everyone to dream big, try new ideas, experiment, and never give up. God made us in his image. We were born to create. The Andrews Center of Innovation is a great place to start. … Your idea may change the world.”  

The project “Ezekiel-Wheels,” created by Curtis Johnson, a mechanical engineering student, won both third place and a Social Innovation Award. Inspired by a need he saw in his community at home, he decided to manufacture improvements to outdated wheelchair technology. “My pitch was for a kit I have designed to attach to a conventional, non-electric wheelchair that allows the user to drive in a straight line fast and easily with one hand. This allows the user to do other things while going straight down a sidewalk or through a door,” he explains. “To me, there are few things more satisfying than being able to use my talents and skills to make someone else’s life better.” 

The award opened a new potential career path for Johnson, who hopes to create his own company someday. He intends to use his winnings to help with manufacturing costs and machine processes. “There is a lot more work to do, but most of the design work is done. I hope to work with other students with the marketing and advertising side of my company,” he notes. “Thanks to the pitch competition, I was also able to meet interested professors and other professionals and entrepreneurs who were both encouraging and offered support. I hope to work with them more in the future and learn more about running a small business.” 

The second Social Innovation Award went to the project “Refill to Reduce” by biology students Gloria Oh, Ariana Coast and Sarah Wolf. The goal of the project is to create a low-waste “refillery” shop in the Benton Harbor community where individuals can refill reusable containers with daily necessities such as dish soap, laundry detergent and hand soap at an affordable cost. The project grew from a need Oh saw on campus as a student. She describes, “My goal with the refillery is to help our community members reduce unnecessary waste and fully utilize what we already have, while supplying them with affordable, ethical and healthy options for their daily necessities. It’s about practicing a sustainable lifestyle for everyone: the environment, the animals and the people.” 

The team has found positive community support through online surveys and a trial laundry detergent refill station on campus. Currently, the refillery operates out of the Biophilia Club on campus, and the team plans to use their award to secure a non-profit status as well as open a physical shop in the fall of 2023. Eventually, they aim to open an online store for more accessibility. “We believe innovation has to be sustainable, and [sustainability] always involves a change in someone’s life,” they relate. “We are excited to make such a change not only in our own lives, but also in the community by creating a place where people can experience a low-waste lifestyle!” 

Other winners and competitors included “The Lehahkeen Project” by Ha Eun Park, “Moyo Med LLC” by Joseph N. Muhune and Blaise M. Muhune, “Ready Shield” by Staton Westerman and “Badventism” by Nicklas Resager. 

Soto looks forward to the continued growth of the program, and appreciates the support of the campus community. He hopes to explore further partnerships with other University departments in the future, affirming, “Innovation, through creative thinking and entrepreneurship, provides students with tools to impact the world around them. As we are called to be the salt of the earth, innovation gives us an opportunity to connect with our community in a more tangible manner. It allows us to truly be in contact with the people around us. Innovation is needed to change the world. Innovation is needed to bring light into a dark world. Innovation is needed to bring love to those starving for a glimpse of God’s love.” 

Isabella Koh, University Communication student writer