Local students compete in business startup event

by Chris O’Neal

Everyone knows the story of the genius who went from rags to riches after developing a product from the ground up. Now’s your chance to catch a glimpse at perhaps the next big thing, as Aspire3 and California State University, Channel Islands, will host the regional grand finals of the Aspire3 Fourth Annual New Venture Challenge and CI Business Startup Competition this Saturday, June 4, in Ventura.

The competition, open to students ranging in age from middle school to those chasing a Ph.D., provides an opportunity for teams to pitch to local businesses and community leaders as well as to potential investors, their ideas for an app, business or company. Winning teams, chosen by panel, will receive prize capital as well as entrance into the Aspire3 Startup Incubation program at Ventura Ventures Technology Center.

The competition and workshop are the brainchild of Ventura-based Aspire3, an entrepreneurial education- and development-focused organization for K-12 students as well as for higher education. Aspire3 occupies a space in the city of Ventura’s own incubator behind City Hall.

Sean Bhardwaj, founder, says that the New Venture Challenge is a way to give students practical knowledge of the world waiting for them after college graduation.

“Because of technology, the economy has changed so dramatically that it’s no longer just learning all of these things and you’re ready to go; you have to be able to create your own opportunities,” said Bhardwaj. “The skill sets that business leaders say they’re looking for in future leaders are things we need to be teaching our students.”

Aspire3’s course is a two- to three-month program that Bhardwaj says can slip in to modern classrooms, culminating in a student project or entry into the competition itself, which is open to students in Ventura County.

Winners of the competition — three teams each from middle and high school, a total of six teams, and three from CSUCI — are eligible for cash prizes ranging from $1,500 to $3,500.

At CSUCI, the championship marks the end of an eight-week course that began on Feb. 15, with each week covering different aspects of being an entrepreneur. Week one, for instance, is designed to identify the values and challenges, while the final week is dedicated to the pitch, which prepares students for the world of Shark Tank-like meetings behind closed doors.

Alex Wulff is a middle-school teacher at DeAnza Academy of Technology and the Arts in Ventura. A slew of ideas have come out of DeAnza, where Wulff instructs around 90 seventh- and eighth-grade students in robotics, engineering, math and science.

Wulff learned about the Aspire3 competition and knew that it would be a good fit for his students, whom he instructs through project-based learning.

“I was super-attracted to the concept of solving big problems and small problems, anything from trying to find a cure for cancer to pencil erasers wearing off too quickly,” said Wulff. “That’s exactly the model we use in the classroom.”

Wulff’s students have developed ideas that have thrust them to the top of the competition in the three years that the school has been participating, winning two years in a row and taking second and third in 2015. This year’s ideas include Cold Shield — a hard candy developed by seventh-graders Noelle Hayward and Wulff’s daughter, Thea Wulff.

The team’s goal was “to greatly decrease the spread of contagious illnesses with a highly alkaline hard candy,” and it reports having achieved promising results, adding that the team is now seeking to patent the candy and is in search of a $50,000 investment for patenting and licensing, as well as to acquire a commercial kitchen to produce the product.

As for the competition and Alex’s instruction, the team says that both are priceless.

“ASPIRE3 has been the greatest educational experience any seventh-grader could receive,” said Hayward and Thea. “This project should be as much remembered as an experience for life (public speaking, finance, science, creativity, working with computers, etc.) as it should be for an actual competition.”

The Aspire3 New Venture Challenge and CI Regional Grand Finals will take place this Saturday, June 4, at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, San Miguel Hall, 10 W. Harbor Blvd. in Ventura. RSVP to attend by visiting www.aspire3.com/pitch