Encouraging younger people to become involved in entrepreneurship by holding business idea competitions is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to innovate our way out of the current financial doldrums the world finds itself in.
The creativity and energy exhibited by the students who enter the top business idea competitions from around the U.S. have shown the rest of us just how easy they can make it look when it comes to generating a new idea, putting together a plan, and pitching it to the world like pros.
We decided to explore thousands of finalists, runners-up, and winners from hundreds of college competitions, held recently (within the last few years), in order to bring you our top 10 list of ideas that have the potential to disrupt entire industries, or solve real-world problems with real elegance.
List of winners
Click on any of the links below to read more about the idea, which college it came from, and information on the idea, the company, and why we think it is such a great idea.
- Focus Foods
- Fever Smart
- Wheel Shields
- Scrumpt Box
How we chose the winners
Our team scoured university competition websites for two days gathering a list of possible candidates from winners, runners up, and other finalists over the previous couple of years. From that big list we selected only those ideas that had moved from being an idea into a real startup.
Then we chose our winners based on the ideas we felt were inherently unique, or offered elegant solutions to existing problems. In addition, we also put emphasis on those ideas that leveraged newer technologies because we wanted to show how new opportunities can arise from seemingly disparate advancements in other fields.
Finally, we voted on how to rank the remaining short-list based on our assessment of how profitable (i.e. how much existing and potential demand there is in the market) each could be, what their growth potential is, and what possibilities there are for providing ever more and better add-on services/features as the businesses evolve.
Hopefully, you'll be as fascinated and amazed as we are by the cool startups these university entrepreneurial competitions are bringing to life.
Competition: MIT 100k Launch
RaptorMaps builds and operates unmanned aircraft to provide crop analytics to agribusiness clients.
One third of crops planted in the world are destroyed by diseases, insects, and weeds.
RaptorMaps spots these troubled plants and enables focused pesticide application, increasing crop yields while reducing environmental impact.
I like this idea, not only because of the old adage that "prevention is better than cure", but because it has the potential to cut down on the huge number of toxic pesticides and other chemicals we currently blanket our planet in. Anything that can help prevent us from wiping out natural ecosystems using poisons is a winner in my book.
Competition: BYU Big Idea Pitch
Latitude, founded by Brody Horton and Kyle Taylor, provides audio tours based on where you are in the world.
Latitude shares the stories of locations in a way that allows tourists to learn about the world around them without needing an expert present.
Because all the tours are recorded by professional tour guides, it’s like having an expert on stand-by the entire time you’re travelling, allowing you to explore anything at your own pace.
I hate guided tours. They drive me nuts because I can't explore at my own pace. Having a digital, knowledgeable local tour guide would be perfect for me (and anyone like me).
3. Focus Foods
Competition: Harvard New Ventures
FOCUS Foods Inc puts urban aquaponics farms on the roofs of grocery stores across the nation, while also building stand-alone farms to sell to farm-to-table restaurants.
Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics that recirculates water in a closed-loop ecosystem. Wastewater from the fish provides organic fertilizer to the plants and the plants clean the fish waste from the water.
This solves some of the key inefficiencies of hydroponics and aquaculture.
Aquaponics uses a small fraction (estimated 5-10%) of the water needed for traditional farming (and none of the soil), is completely organic, and entirely sustainable.
I think it's about time we started building sustainable produce. I'm fairly certain that there are potentially thousands of these types of closed-loop systems just waiting to be invented and used to make a diverse array of foods.
Competition: Tufts Ideas Competition
Portable, tough and low cost, LightLab brings analysis out of the laboratory and into greenhouses, sales counters and infused product production centers.
In 2014, the legal marijuana market topped $2.5 Billion.
Economists project that the legal medicinal and recreational marijuana sector will surpass $10.2 Billion by 2018.
Instant cannabinoid potency data is what growers, dispensaries and infused products manufacturers need and it’s what the LightLab provides using revolutionary photonics technology.
So there's clearly a growing demand for this type of device, but I like this idea because, as the technology improves, I'm sure there will be applications in many other areas - including things like disease detection.
Competition: Drexel Business Incubator
Scholly is the simple, comprehensive and accurate scholarship matching platform, that turns the long months of searching for free money for college, into minutes.
Designed to ease the scholarship search process, our patented scholarship matching engine delivers a smarter, targeted list of scholarships that are uniquely suited to you.
The bottom line is that there is free money for college out there waiting to be won, by you.
Scholly helps you with the scholarship search process, and then supports you in your bid to win them.
While administrators of scholarship programs are likely to have a lot more work on their hands, processing a much larger pool of applications from services like Scholly, from the students perspective this service will be extremely valuable.
6. Fever Smart
Competition: Wharton Business Plan
Fever Smart is redefining the thermometer market by providing technology that integrates seamlessly into people’s lives.
No longer do parents have to wake up sleeping children, or nurses have to check each hospital patient’s temperature one by one.
Instead, responsible parties can easily track patients’ temperatures continuously and remotely using a smart device.
Nice, clean innovation. How long have nurses been taking temperatures with a thermometer now? A few hundred years? Definitely time for a modern upgrade. And of course, with the information digitized it might also be used, potentially, to monitor the spread of flu and other outbreaks on large scales via big data analytics in the cloud (assuming these become common household devices).
7. Wheel Shields
Competition: Baylor New Venture
Wheel Shields keep skaters dry on wet roads, end wheel bite, and let riders invent new tricks.
Hands down the biggest innovation in longboarding.
Wheel Shields attach to the end of each truck axle and are mounted using their custom nut setup to ensure they stay firmly in place. They are made from aircraft aluminum because of its amazing strength and lightweight properties.
Putting wheel guards over wheels is not really an exciting new concept, but the solution is elegant. It almost makes you sit up and go, "D'oh, why didn't I think of that". Of course, I'm sure the engineering hurdles they had to overcome weren't insignificant either.
Update: Baylor New Venture is back!
Connor Smotherman from Baylor got in touch to let me know that Baylor's New Venture Business plan competition is ready and waiting for your entry (it's open to any student of any accredited college). Here are a few of the great things they've got in store for you:
- Top prize is $60,000 and total cash and in-kind awards of $200,000+
- Top 12 teams walk away with cash, complimentary business services, and industry contacts
- Expert mentorship, feedback, and coaching - including a business pitch boot camp from Baylor’s LAUNCH Innovative Business Accelerator
- $1500 elevator pitch competition amongst finalists
- Finalist teams receive up to $1000 for travel expenses (split among team members)
So what are you still doing reading this? Entries close on November 6, 2016 and students can apply now to enter at startupcompete.
Competition: Foster Business Plan
Experiment is an online platform for discovering, funding, and sharing science.
The majority of scientists spend more time on finding funding for research than the actual research itself.
Backers fund directly to the scientists, so there is no middleman or overhead involved (compared to 50-60% when receiving a grant at a university).
Excellent idea aimed at reducing a systemic bottleneck in the scientific research niche. Obviously, it's important for humanity as a whole that our scientists are able to work as efficiently as possible, so this platform might be just what researchers need to get back into their labs to focus on the important stuff.
9. ShapeU (Fitmango)
Competition: JHU Business Plan
ShapeU (now FitMango) makes personal training affordable by not only offering gym facilities, but also matching you with like-minded people to share the costs of a personal trainer.
More affordable than one-on-one training. More personal attention than overcrowded classes.
Tell FitMango about yourself and they’ll find you the perfect small group personal training session at one of their partner gyms. You don't need a gym membership either - simply pay for the days you attend.
Not a revolutionary idea, but, like all good business ideas, this one will no doubt find a decent market because no-one likes to fork out exorbitant fees for personal training when they could pay half the amount and get pretty much the same benefit going to class with a friend.
Incidentally, this is also, potentially, a great way to meet new people - think along the lines of combining this with a dating element (for people who enjoy being active, fit and healthy).
10. Scrumpt Box
Scrumpt box delivers low-cost, healthy lunches and nutritious snacks via mail to families of elementary school children.
Competition: UCDavis Big Bang
Kids should have agency over their lunch and parents should feel good about what their kids are eating.
Scrumpt box features gluten-free, nut-free, and lactose-free lunches in addition to 24 nutritionist created lunches every quarter.
What I really love about this idea is that it wants to get kids involved in choosing the food they eat. This is something that we neglect in general, so anything that has the potential to let kids explore new foods and make their own decisions (within a healthy dietary framework) is fantastic. I think parents will respond well to this.
What other university startup ideas do you know about that deserve to be on this list? Share any great new ideas in the comments below, or add them to our small business ideas resource page and we'll share them with the rest of the world to drum up a bit of buzz.