Traditional “Pitch” Competitions – the Company as the Unit of Innovation:

Since the inception of the “pitch” competition, starting in 1984 as the Moot Corp competition (hosted by the IC2 Institute at The University of Texas at Austin), students have been encouraged and trained to express their creativity using the “firm” or “a company” as the unit for innovation delivery. In pitch competitions, new companies propose to deliver products or services meeting an urgent market need, and if meritorious, equity funds are subsequently raised to initiate operations. For example, student teams participating in the Student Entrepreneur Accelerator and Launch program of the Austin Technology Incubator have raised over $100M in equity capital using this company model over the past 12 years. Notable alumni include Favor (acquired by HEB), M87 (acquired by XCOM), Lynx Laboratories (acquired by Occipital), and Accordion Health (acquired by Evolent Health).

However, not all problems are readily solved by companies. Our world, and the communities where most of its population physically aggregates, face challenges beyond the capacity of a single firm to solve – economic growth, population health, homelessness, nutrition access, and childcare provision are but some examples. Necessary assets, people and economic incentives are not in the control of or readily accessed by a single entity and regional collaborations are necessary for large-scale solutions to be both developed and delivered.

How can larger-scale solutions be accelerated? What role can students play in this process?

Something New: Viewing the Community as the Unit of Innovation:

The IC2 Institute took a page from its founder, George Kozmetsky’s, playbook when he launched MootCorp – think differently about systems and problems that resist simple solutions. We developed a new type of student “pitch” competition focusing on the community as the unit for innovation delivery. With generous support from the Kozmetsky family, the George Kozmetsky Memorial Student Challenge (or GK Challenge for short) was launched in 2020. In this challenge, students take on problems related to the needs of communities and bring fresh and innovative ideas of growth and sustainability while maintaining unique community identities and good quality of life for their citizens. To date, we have completed three cycles of the GK Challenge, with >180 students engaged to date. Students form interdisciplinary teams and students from 14  Colleges and Schools across the Forty Acres have participated.

How the Competition Works:

Each GK Challenge has produced exciting opportunities for students to think creatively and innovate programmatically to produce their “pitches.” As an example, I want to explore our most recent GK Challenge, Fall 2021, which focused on the concern of community health in non-metropolitan areas – where a disproportionate per capita chronic disease burden is present compared with urban areas. Solutions to this problem will create great benefits – offering improved health, greater physical activity, lower overall costs, and improved quality of life for residents. Thus, students were asked students to design a preventative health initiative fitted to the community of choice to increase health and wellness for its residents. Students conducted community surveys, interviewed leaders and citizens, studied public documents, and explored health assets to identify a manner to improve health and well-being in their chosen community. The outcome was a prototype program for judges and community leaders to consider.

External judges selected the top teams – each created projects that fitted their communities well and promoted community health.

The third-place team representing the community of Van Horne noted the importance of the unobstructed night skies for residents in far West Texas and proposed the Van Horne Star Park – an interactive night sky experience. The park: 1) encourages health through walking paths taking participants through key parts of the community, 2) promotes understanding through astronomy-based sky viewing, and 3) links participants to local community shops and retailers.

The team working with La Grange placed second. The students proposed Running for Change – a run/walk competition that will promote community health, take participants throughout the community, and emphasize efforts to revitalize the downtown area. Local merchants and organizations integrate into the event through sponsorship and donations of products and services to the attendees.

And the Winner Is…

The winning team engaged with the south Texas community of Alice. While most challenge teams focused on events, programs, apps, and programs to encourage health, the Alice team identified a key challenge to community health improvement – incentivizing residents to start and engage when health benefits are not yet evident. Using the Early Bird program in Austin as inspiration, the team proposed reducing the prevalence of hypertension and diabetes in the Alice community through rewarding healthy actions and habits – even small – through financial contributions to a 529 college savings account for children. By partnering with local healthcare facilities and leaders, key health benchmarks can be set, award amounts determined, and an initial fund established to enroll 100 families in the Early Health Investment Initiative pilot program. Short- and long-term actions necessary to launch and scale the pilot were identified as well as metrics to evaluate the success of the program. The judges were impressed with this novel approach that incentivized families to prioritize health and education through a college savings program. Ultimately, the program seeks to decrease wealth gaps in the community, improve the long-term health of residents, and increase the rate of college engagement among the residents of Alice.

Each participating team linked the content and outcome of their programs to the health needs, economic development goals and gaps, and identity of their chosen community. They used the community as the unit for innovation – engaging community resources, organizations, and people to solve community challenges. It will be exciting to see community responses to these innovative ideas and monitor the impact of this important part of community life – the health of its residents.

What is Next?

We have learned that students are motivated to understand community issues and exercise their creativity to propose solutions. Further, students scale – allowing IC2 to engage 20 communities or more during each competition. This is something a professional staff cannot readily address. The next iteration of this program will be to identify funding sources to promote student and community collaborations to explore prototype solutions and evaluate results. We hope the results to date encourage new engagements and to help move challenge results from concept to practice.