Fishing for innovation

From de-icing airplanes to saxophone straps designed for women, the 2017 Fisher Innovation Challenge finalists focused on solving problems for businesses worldwide.

Created in 2016 with donations from Donne Fisher, an entrepreneur based in Denver, the Wyoming Technology Business Center — a part of the University of Wyoming — the Fisher Innovation Challenge was designed to foster a competitive environment for students with start-up business ideas.

“I felt an entrepreneur challenge as a competition was a good way to get people involved from different departments,” Wyoming Technology Business Center CEO Jon Benson said.

After a semifinals round with 13 candidates, judges for the entrepreneur challenge named 11 finalists Friday, nearly double the number of finalists named in 2016.

“There were so many good ideas, we didn’t want to turn anybody away,” Benson said. “We really want to stimulate as many companies as we can.”

The finalists are slated to move into the next phase of the challenge before pitching their business ideas to a panel of judges in November for a chance to secure $2,500 in seed money and the opportunity to apply for up to $100,000 from the entrepreneur challenge’s seed fund.

“We’ll now work with them for the next six months to put together an idea and a pitch,” Benson said.

“Our approach is ‘Let’s just get to know them and help them put together their pitch in a logical way.’”

Most of the start-ups are “business-to-business” companies, he said.

“When you do that, you’re helping (another business) solve a problem,” Benson said. “The more important the problem you’re helping that company solve, the quicker they buy and the more they pay.”

Determining the value of the solution and vulnerability of any patents the company might produce plays a significant role in who the judges decide could move on to the next round.

“Another thing that is important is the student — their ability to do this business and their commitment,” Benson said.

Instead of a traditional ranking system, Benson said the business center decided the last phase of the challenge would be a qualifying round.

“If we say you’re qualified, then that means we like your idea, we like your management, and we think your business could gain traction,” Benson said. “Last year, we had eight finalist and we qualified six of them.”

The idea of building the economy through investing in new business rests at the foundation of the challenge, he said.

“For us, it’s about starting businesses that we believe could be high-value businesses,” Benson said.

“They’re important building blocks in the economy.”

He defined a high-value business as one that earns $3 million to $5 million in revenue each year and has a 10-20 percent annual net profit margin.

“If you can build a $3 (million) to $5 million company, that’s not easy to do — but anyone can do it,” Benson said. “It takes probably 5-7 years to build a company like that. They all started with an idea.”

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