Entrepreneurial journeys are full of uncertainty, said Greg Bier, the executive director of entrepreneurship programs at MU.
That statement rang especially true for the Entrepreneur Quest Student Accelerator pitch competition, which had to move its finals online this year because of COVID-19 social distancing orders.
This is the second year the competition took place. It allowed University of Missouri System students to pitch business venture ideas to professionals in an effort to turn them into viable career opportunities and win $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000. Drew Patel, a sophomore studying computer science at MU, won this year’s first-place prize and the $15,000 that goes with it. Patel created a platform called Pollinate, which allows people in countries with developing economies to pick up their e-commerce packages through on-demand delivery.
Pollinate is both a website and an app. It creates one platform for all existing delivery companies so they can transport packages to any location that the service operates in.
“This solves the subcontracting and fragmentation issue that exists with logistics in emerging economies,” Patel said. “To solve the lack of addresses problem and expensive costs of last-mile delivery in emerging economies, Pollinate uses street stall vendors to hold packages for pickup.”
Patel said he discovered a need for such a service after having to lug clothes and electronics to India every year when going to visit family. He kept the idea in the back of his mind and thought the competition would be a good opportunity to get feedback on it.
Patel plans on expanding the service in Africa and said his win will help him launch Pollinate’s first pilot in Nairobi, Kenya.
To get to the final part of the competition, Patel’s idea first had to be selected by UM System representatives last fall from applicants across all four universities. Selected students could compete individually or in teams of up to three members.
Those who passed the pitching process made it to the competition’s semifinal round, where they spent eight weeks developing their ideas. The students also participated in workshops and mentorships.
“A key facet of the program is the ability to make connections and learn about funding opportunities,” Bier said. “Many of these students have gone on to raise investment capital through the networking and mentoring opportunities that the program provides.”
For Patel, a workshop that explained the legal structures of entrepreneurial companies was particularly helpful. He also learned a lot from advisors who helped him refine his pitch.
“Since it is a technical product and I’m a very technical person, I tend to use too much technical jargon,” Patel said. “However, they helped steer me into a more general pitch that most judges could understand.”
At the end of those eight weeks, semifinalists from each university once again pitched to business professionals, who then chose the top three finalists from each school.
Those final 12 teams pitched their business ventures one last time, though this time the pitching took place virtually last Wednesday and Thursday.
Bier said it was interesting to see pitches delivered from apartments and basements in parents’ homes. He thought the students adapted well to the changes.
“This was just another example of how well we can adjust and keep moving our students and the UM System forward in a manner that contributes to the economic engine of our community, region, state and country,” Bier said.