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UTRGV Students And Local Entrepreneurs Win Big At Annual Big Idea Competition 

Four Vaqueros move on to national competition

Daisy Belmares, the first place winner of the 2023 Big Idea Competition, is pictured with Dr. Russell Adams, chair and associate professor of International Business & Entrepreneurship at UTRGV, and Laurie Simmons, director of the UTRGV Center for Innovation & Commercialization. (Courtesy Photo)

By Kanea MacDonald 

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – DEC. 22, 2023 – Four UTRGV students will move on to compete at the national level for a chance to win $10K after dominating the fourth annual Big Idea Competition, hosted by the UTRGV Center for Innovation & Commercialization (CIC).

This Shark Tank-like event, hosted by CIC, a department of the Robert C. Vackar College of Business & Entrepreneurship, this Fall semester saw ambitious UTRGV students and local entrepreneurs pitch innovative ideas for businesses, products, and services with the goal of taking home the top prize of $1,500 and the chance to move on to nationals.

From a pool of more than 70 total applicants, 20 were selected as finalists for two categories: one comprised of UTRGV students and the other of community members, including UTRGV alumni, staff and faculty. After each finalist pitched their innovative idea to a panel of esteemed judges, the top three pitches were selected for each category.

Daisy Belmares, a junior and social work major, took first place ($1,500) in the student category and advanced to nationals as the top pick for the Consumer Products and Services special category ($1,000). She pitched “Sharp,” an idea involving a portable and cordless device barbers can use to inhale loose hair safely and more effectively after a haircut, much like a vacuum. 

As a social work major, Belmares was unsure at first whether it was worth her time to enter a business competition like this, she said. She was surprised when she took the top prize and qualified for nationals. After her experience, she expressed hope that other non-business majors would take advantage of opportunities like this at the CIC. 

“I just want to say – if you have an idea, you should totally present it,” said Belmares. “There’s no downside to it and you could end up winning just like I did! So, I would totally encourage anyone who has an idea, no matter what your major or experience is, to step forward and say something. Maybe you can make something out of it!” 

Second place in the student category ($750) went to Karla Medrano-Faz, a Brownsville marketing major and president of the American Marketing Association at UTRGV, who pitched “Paplatos,” an idea to create environmentally friendly disposable plates out of potatoes. This idea also resulted in Medrano-Faz advancing to nationals in the special category of Social & Climate Impact ($1,000).

Jennifer Olivos, a Blackstone LaunchPad student ambassador from Celaya, Guanajuato, Mexico, was awarded third place ($500) for her idea “OpalNopal Pinturas.” Her idea was the creation of unique and sustainable paint made from nopales (prickly pear cacti), sourced from local cactus growers. In addition to taking third place overall in the local competition, Olivos, a double major in Finance and Economics, also qualified for the national competition, taking the top slot in the general category ($1,000).

John Eberlein, double major in Mechanical Engineering and Environmental Science from Edinburg, was the final UTRGV student to qualify for nationals in one of the four special category awards – Health & Life Sciences ($1,000). His idea, “Salud del Suelos,” seeks to provide the lowest barrier to entry for the production of agricultural soil amendments (biofertilzer).

Each of these four UTRGV students qualified for the national Blackstone LaunchPad Ideas Competition, where they will have the chance to win an additional $10,000.

Top three winners in the student category (left to right) include UTRGV students: Jennifer Olivos (3rd place), a double major in Finance and Economics; Daisy Belmares (1st place), a junior and social work major; and Karla Medrano-Faz (2nd place), marketing major. (Courtesy Photo)

Tamas Petenyi, an international criminal justice graduate student from Slovakia and part-time faculty member in the College of Liberal Arts, took home first place in the community category with his pitch for “V!Bay.” His idea features an online platform for sharing, offering, negotiating, and selling products and services by and between UTRGV students, with the possibility to expand the personal scope beyond UTRGV and include the Rio Grande Valley at large.

“It’s absolutely mind-blowing because I was not expecting to win. When they were announcing the results, I didn’t even hear that I won first place,” said Petenyi. “I’m very grateful for the funds awarded, but it’s also a great morale boost. It’s fantastic to hear positive feedback on your idea, and to know the judges saw its potential.”

Other winners in the community category included:
Second place – Dr. Alex Zuo, a full-time faculty member in the UTRGV School of Medicine, for a desktop device known as the Mutation Detection System (MDS), an innovation in mutation detection combining cutting-edge chemistry with state-of-the-art hardware.
Third place – Carlos Ramirez, local entrepreneur from Pharr, for “Shopping Ecosystems,” a platform that seeks to connect international shoppers with local retailers while giving the latter a chance to advertise and build loyalty programs with their target customers.

Armando Vera Carvajal, Big Idea Competition judge and CEO/co-founder of startup “hangtight,” holds the RGV near and dear to him. Carvajal, who was born in Mexico City but grew up in McAllen, is passionate about helping startups and being involved in events like the competition. He said it is a great opportunity to meet amazing people, be inspired by their ideas and support the next generation and future of the community.

Carvajal emphasized that while aspiring entrepreneurs first need to believe in themselves when creating something out of nothing, at the end of the day they especially need someone else who believes in them.
“The likelihood that you will see that idea through and turn it into the next stage really depends on building a community of people who believe in you and will give you exactly what you need – access to capital, advisors, mentorship and the right tools and resources. I think ecosystems that don’t offer that really struggle to grow and evolve, let alone innovate,” he said.

“What is being done here at UTRGV Center for Innovation & Commercialization with the Big Idea Competition is cementing a very strong foundation, not just for right now but for generations to come. And we will see that impact across many industries over the many years – I believe it.” 

 The 2023 Big Idea Competition was made possible by Blackstone LaunchPad, Dr. Russell Adams, and the Center for Innovation & Commercialization, UTRGV’s own Blackstone LaunchPad.

Top three winners in the community category (left to right) include: Carlos Ramirez (3rd Place), local entrepreneur from Pharr; Tamas Petenyi (1st Place), part-time faculty member in the UTRGV College of Liberal Arts; and Dr. Alex Zuo (2nd Place), a full-time faculty member in the UTRGV School of Medicine. (Courtesy Photo)

The Center for Innovation & Commercialization is the UTRGV’s own Blackstone LaunchPad. This center seeks to promote economic growth in the Rio Grande Valley by assisting regional entrepreneurs in the ideation, development, and acceleration of new business ventures and by developing the next generation of RGV entrepreneurs through experiential learning opportunities in new venture creation for students.

Upcoming opportunities for students and local entrepreneurs include the Business Plan Competition coming Spring 2024, with a grand prize of $10,000.

The Blackstone LaunchPad network makes entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial skills accessible and relevant for all college students to help them build thriving companies and careers. We work with higher-ed institutions to deliver proven startup resources, facilitate access to a global network of mentors and advisors, and offer unique virtual and physical convening opportunities so thousands of diverse college students can go further, faster. Students learn by doing, gaining knowledge and critical skills to help them succeed as a founder or contributor to the innovation economy. LaunchPad’s ever-expanding network encompasses campuses with predominantly underrepresented populations.

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