MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The next generation of innovators painted a hopeful picture for the Mountain State’s future during Bridging Innovation Week in Charleston April 4-8, demonstrating the power of West Virginia’s partnerships, people and possibilities under one roof.
The conference – which showcased the momentum and energy of West Virginia’s start-up movement - brought together established entrepreneurs and business champions to inspire and support the rising innovators who participated in the West Virginia Business Plan Competitions.
The Impact of Innovation: How the Business Plan Competitions Foster Start-Ups
Hosted by the Encova Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the West Virginia University John Chambers College of Business and Economics, the West Virginia Business Plan Competitions have grown over the last 16 years from a single competition for statewide college students to a trifecta of competitions for West Virginia high school students, college students and community members who aspire to grow an idea from concept to company.
A panel of 10 judges – all successful entrepreneurs with West Virginia ties – awarded a record-breaking $83,300 in funding to 17 teams across all three segments in this year’s competitions, seeding their next important steps in building their businesses.
Tara St. Clair, director of operations for WVU’s Encova Center, says the expanded investment from partners and the growing momentum around innovation in the state has opened up big opportunities for anyone in West Virginia with a viable business idea and the determination needed to keep pushing it forward.
“The level of funding that our generous partners have enabled us to provide to our students and community members participating in these competitions is a game-changer for innovation in our state,” St. Clair said. “Seed funding is often what stands between an entrepreneur with a viable idea and growing that idea into a product or business. This helps them remove that obstacle.”
High School Business Plan Competition
The West Virginia High School Business Plan Competition provides students grades 9-12 around the state the unique opportunity to learn how to move a business idea from conception to action with the support of the state institutions.
Finalist teams and their investments include:
Repeat After Me: Sarah Wilson, The Linsly School - $5,000.00
Infinite Gaming: William Wojtowicz, Moorefield High School - $3,000.00
M&M Custom Baits: Mason Atkinson, Herbert Hoover High School - $2,500.00
Salem Mission Homeless Center: Carrie Lloyd & Alexis Lamb, Doddridge County High School - $1,000.00
Advanced Propulsion Concepts: Ralph Wojtowicz, Moorefield High School - $3,000.00
Collegiate Business Plan Competition
Bobby Noble, a participant in the West Virginia Collegiate Business Plan Competition, understands how important that capital is to growth.
He walked away with $5,000 for the business he built with partners Delaney Geiger and Ronan Sullivan. Noble Growing Systems is a 3-in-1 hydroponic system that optimizes root zones for plants to accelerate growth. The system enables a 50 percent increase in yields, reduces labor by one-third and water usage by 98 percent – a vital benefit as farms in the West are experiencing a severe drought.
“Funding gives us a path forward,” said Noble. “We did the NSF ICorps program to discover our customer segment. We need to be able to attend expos to reach our customer base and make our first sale, and this investment will enable us to do that.”
For Noble – who is getting his PhD in horticulture from WVU in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design – the value of participating wasn’t limited to funding. It opened up new doors of possibilities that wouldn’t have been available to his team otherwise.
“We worked closely with the Professional Sales Accelerator Program (in the Chambers College Marketing Department) and the LaunchLab at WVU, and through that process, we met Tara St. Clair and she encouraged us to enter the West Virginia Collegiate Business Plan Competition,” said Noble. “The connections we’ve made and the work that we’ve done with the students has been invaluable. There have been so many people who want to help us grow.”
Seven teams from four West Virginia colleges and universities, including Marshall University, Shepherd University, West Virginia University and Glenville State College competed in the Collegiate Business Plan Competition. They received $42,500 in total funding.
Finalist teams and their investments include:
- Aquasthenics: Tucker Yano & Chase Rowland, West Virginia University - $10,000
- Avalon Green Apparel: Avalon Green, Glenville State College - $10,000
- Monster Forge: Joce Mace, Marshall University - $5,000
- Dashplain: Robert Gianniny, West Virginia University - $5,000
- Earring BackTrack: Anna Cummings, West Virginia University - $5,000
- LLETMI Nutrition: Akshit Mudigonda, Julia Snyder and Emily Lemen, Shepherd University - $2,500
- Noble Growing System: Bobby Noble, Delaney Geiger & Ronan Sullivan, West Virginia University - $5,000
Community Business Plan Competition
Dr. Ryan Angus, assistant professor of Entrepreneurship in the Chambers College, has witnessed the possibilities that result from giving West Virginians a platform to pitch a business idea.
Angus launched Seed WV in 2021with funds from the James Clark Coffman Chair in Entrepreneurial Studies. The competition was built on the idea that successful companies started with small amounts of financial capital and bootstrapped their way to success. It was renamed the West Virginia Community Business Plan Competition in 2022.
Samuel “Auggie” Chico, owner of Parthian Battery Solutions, finished second place in the inaugural year of the competition for his reinvention of Lithium-ion batteries to promote cost-effective sustainability. He also won the West Virginia Collegiate Business Plan Competition in 2020 as a Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources student with partner Kyle Seese.
Chico has since taken up residence in Vantage Ventures to scale his business, using the full spectrum of innovation support systems available to him at WVU.
He’s made strides in his business quickly. Just a year after his second-place finish in the Seed WV competition, Chico has been named as a Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center Milestone Maker.
Chico credits the Community Business Plan Competition and the seed funding it provided for his successes.
"Over the past year, Parthian has encountered some exciting milestones, including partnering with one of the largest electric vehicle manufacturers in the US to responsibly retire their battery packs through our reuse solutions," said Chico.
For Angus, Chico’s success is proof positive that West Virginia is moving in the right direction in its goal of growing into a start-up state, and the Community Business Plan Competition is giving them a platform and the seed money to get started.
“When you give determined entrepreneurs a platform and a community, they can and will solve big problems on a global scale right here in West Virginia,” said Angus.
And he has no doubt the future will be ripe with innovative products created by gritty innovators positioned to take advantage of every opportunity.
“We have a talented crop of teams walking away with funding this year, including Cameron Keefe, owner of Thermoroller, who is another example of an innovation ecosystem success story that utilized all of the support systems available to them along the way,” said Angus. “They now have $10,000 to scale their business.”
Keefe - a Global Supply Chain major and Entrepreneurship minor in the Chambers College - previously competed in the Collegiate Business Plan Competition and utilized the LaunchLab for business coaching. She also participated in several competitions and started working on a provision patent for her product.
That product is a modified athletic roller called the ThermoRoller, a device that can change temperature to relieve sore muscle pain.
Angus was one of her professors and encouraged her to compete in the Community Business Plan Competition.
She’s very glad she took his advice.
“The $10,000 will enable me to work with the Robert C. Byrd Institute to finalize my prototype,” said Keefe. “Then I can create my product and launch my company into retail services.”
“I’m excited for the future and am so grateful for all of the connections – without them, it wouldn’t have been possible,” she said. “This team of mentors and innovators rallied around me and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, and sparked my passion for entrepreneurship and helping others on their journey.”
She encourages any rising innovator to take advantage of every opportunity in front of them.
“My story has been the journey of taking advantage of all of these opportunities and connections that WVU has offered me,” said Keefe. “When you chase your dreams and have people to support you, anything is possible.”
This year’s Community Business Plan Competition gave five teams from across the state the opportunity to take home $26,300 in total funding to seed their businesses.
- Thermoroller: Cameron Keefe, Morgantown - $10,000
- Montani Outfitters: Nicholus Triplett and West Cassity, Morgantown - $9,300
- Exoknot: Andrew Leich, Bruceton Mills - $5,000
- The Dirt Doctors: Joe Williams, Belington - $1,000
- Skypunch Technology’s Online Voting System: David Simms, Charleston - $1,000
‘The Grit to Execute’
The competitions are about more than idea pitching. They bring together a collaborative community of investors, innovators and organizations to rally around the participants and support their entrepreneurial journeys – supporting the larger mission of building West Virginia into a start-up state.
Sarah Biller is invested in that mission. As the executive director of Vantage Ventures, she is a champion for bringing big tech companies like DataRobot to West Virginia.
During Bridging Innovation Week, Biller served on the judging panel of the Business Plan Competitions, in addition to spearheading a demo day for her Vantage Ventures residents and facilitating important conversations about West Virginia’s journey to become an innovation economy with entrepreneurs and WVU President Gordon Gee.
She left hopeful and inspired by what West Virginia’s future holds.
“Entrepreneurs from all around West Virginia are tackling ‘hard tech problems’,” said Biller. “They are dreaming big dreams, but they are also providing a road map to show how you get it done.”
Biller believes that formula will be the key to continuing the momentum to build West Virginia into an innovation economy.
“That’s how you turn West Virginia into a start-up state – you take ideas and combine them with tenacity and execution,” she said. “The execution is what makes the difference between an idea and a successful business.”
Biller believes resiliency will differentiate this group of rising innovators and drive them to change the world.
“Those entrepreneurs had no fear,” said Biller. “They are West Virginians – they have the grit to execute and own their futures.”
CONTACT: Heather Richardson
Assistant Dean for Strategic Communications
WVU John Chambers College of Business and Economics