When four Armstrong Middle School students entered a contest in March that challenged them to develop an idea for a business, they immediately looked for a way to improve a problem in their own lives.
It didn’t take them long to nail that down.
“We’ve all four been at the bus stop for a long time waiting on our bus to get there,” said eighth grader Ian Zhang. “Sometimes, our bus doesn’t come at all.”
Zhang, along with fellow eighth graders Lyem Ningthou and Andrew Yu, and seventh grader Vivek Nagarajan, came up with Go Bus — an idea for a GPS tracking system for school buses that students and parents could access through a mobile app.
On Saturday, the Go Bus team became $500 closer to making its idea a reality, as grand prize winners of the first Oktibbeha County Innovation Challenge.
Go Bus’ creators were among nine finalist teams who pitched their ideas to a panel of judges Saturday morning at Starkville Community Theatre. The pitches culminated a four-week program for middle- and high-school students in the county to develop entrepreneurial ideas. The Partnership in Starkville and the Mississippi State University Center for Entrepreneurship and Outreach (the E-Center) organized the challenge, and International Paper sponsored it.
“We were particularly impressed with Go Bus because of the ability to move it forward immediately,” said Eric Hill, the entrepreneurship director at MSU’s E-Center and one of Saturday’s judges.
That’s exactly what the Go Bus kids intend to do this summer, when they will have access to the E-Center’s facilities and expertise to further develop their idea. From there, they hope to one day pitch a finished product to Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District officials.
“We’re going to use the prize money for beta testing, prototyping and basically developing the app,” Ningthou said.
Students submitted more than 50 ideas for the Innovation Challenge, according to E-Center outreach director Jeffrey Rupp. Nine teams of finalists — which included public, private and homeschool students who ranged in age from 12-17 — were selected from that pool to complete the program, and each team was paired with a MSU student mentor to help finetune their ideas.
Other innovations pitched Saturday ranged from a jacket enhanced by solar panels and an app that could organize sports leagues and pick-up games to drones that could collect water for people in countries where nearby water sources are scarce.
“Overall, I clearly came away impressed with the talent in our community,” said Saunders Ramsey, an engineer with Neel-Schaffer who also served as a contest judge. “Literally every product pitched identified something that was missing in the market. … It also stood out how the younger kids in the competition significantly closed the gap with the older teams. I just hope all these guys keep their momentum going from here.”
‘Every shot you don’t take is a shot you miss’
SHS juniors Hannah Jain and Kayleigh Thomas actually developed an egg-free cookie dough that is safe to eat raw — and even brought samples for the judges as part of their pitch. Both plan to major in business marketing when they get to college, with Jain hoping to become a marketing professional for a major corporation and Thomas eying a career in music promoting.
They said they may briefly shelve their budding cookie dough business, but finishing what they started in the Innovation Challenge definitely fits in their future plans.
“It was really rewarding to present something we created,” Jain said. “Maybe after college, we can get back together and pursue this.”
Marlee Jones, a Starkville Academy junior who pitched a phone protector that is waterproof and can float, said she will be back in the E-Center this summer prototyping and testing — an opportunity all the finalists will have.
Before Jones entered her idea for the challenge, she said she wasn’t very confident it would get far. Ultimately, she decided: “What do I have to lose?”
“Every shot you don’t take is a shot you miss,” she said.
Hill, before the pitches even began Saturday, urged finalists not to let the results discourage them if they didn’t win.
“Please don’t stop what you’re doing,” he said. “The winner is the one who didn’t even make the final round and is sitting at home today trying to figure how to (better develop the idea). The winner may be the one who places second today … and decides to carry their idea forward anyway.”
Both The Partnership and E-Center hope to grow the program next year to include students throughout the Golden Triangle. If this year’s results are any indication, Partnership CEO Scott Maynard said there’s definitely untapped potential for future program success.
“We never dreamed the amount of interest this project would garner, especially based on the short amount of time we had to put it together,” Maynard said.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.