‘Our goal is to get students to see problems as opportunities’

Ten teams of Lake County high school students did their best to pitch their problem-solving entrepreneurial ideas to a panel of judges Friday at Purdue Northwest as part of the Innovate WithIN regional pitch competition.

Don Wettrick, CEO of STARTedUP Foundation, who organizes the event in cooperation with Purdue Northwest and the Purdue Society of Innovators, said this is the seventh year for the competition. Six regional events are held and the winners from those rounds go on to compete for the state title – along with $25,000 in company seed money and scholarship funds – on June 21 at Butler University.

Wettrick said the local anchor school is Hobart High School, where the competition started, and as word of the competition spread, more schools have become involved. This year there were three teams from Munster, two from Lowell, two from Hobart, and one each from Hanover Central, Hammond and Lake Central high schools.

More than 3,000 Indiana high schoolers sent in applications for consideration. That number was whittled down to 10 in each region. The winner of each region plus four wild cards will compete for the state title.

“Our whole goal is to get students to see problems as opportunities,” Wettrick said.

Whether students go into entrepreneurship after their experience or choose a different path, the skills they learn help change the way they look at the world, he said.

Jason Williams, manager director of the Society of Innovators at Purdue Northwest, said there were 600 applicants in Northwest Indiana alone.

“The quality of the applicants and the number of applicants continues to grow,” Williams said. Along with the growth of the competition is the growth of an ecosystem of support that is spreading around it, providing mentorship and assistance after the contest ends.

Dr. Rachel Clapp-Smith, dean of Purdue University Northwest College of Business at PNW, said it is inspiring to see the innovation brought out in the competition by the region’s youth. She described the university as fertile ground for entrepreneurship.

She said the solutions to tomorrow’s problems can be found in the minds of today’s high school students.

“I know I am probably going to see a CEO, a future change maker, a future business leader here today,” Clapp-Smith said.

One by one the teams took the stage to talk about the problem their business would fix.

Ashton Verbish from Hanover Central High School explained what brought him to his idea of “SafetyGlow,” an emergency lighting system for disabled semi-trucks.

As a newer driver who lives in Cedar Lake and often uses local highways and interstates, he said he noticed how difficult it is to see semi trucks that have pulled over on the shoulder. The three triangles they are required by law to put behind their trucks are difficult to spot in the few seconds a vehicle moving 40-plus miles an hour has to see something approaching at night.

His solution is a band of flashing lights that can be attached from corner to corner on the back of the truck to form a large “X.”

Noah Kaiser and Mikel Ivy from Hobart High School pitched their product “Safe Trips,” a product designed to keep youth accounted for when they are on classroom trips or with other organizations or businesses. The team said their idea stemmed from an incident where Kaiser’s younger brother was hiding and the family could not find him.

They have devised a bracelet and are working on an app that allows teachers or event organizers, for example, to provide each child with a GPS bracelet. The bracelet is registered to the child and the teacher and parent can track the child’s location. After the event, the bracelet is returned and can be reassigned for future use.

The Munster High School team behind “Wringo” walked away with first place. Ameen Musleh, Vasili Papageorge and Conner Gomez wowed the judges with their “perfect solution” designed to help instill confidence and reduce anxiety among people who have sweaty hands.

Wringo is a product the user holds in their hand for 15 seconds and it leaves hands dry and natural for 30 minutes.

The Wringo team will head to Butler University in June to make their pitch at the state competition. There also are four at-large positions in the six districts that will be filled with the top four scoring teams district-wide after the top six winners are named. Williams said the 10 teams heading to state will be announced Friday.

There will be a pep rally for the state finalists on June 7 at the Lake County Corn Dogs game in Crown Point.