An entrepreneurial competition that has generated thriving new companies and provided students with first-hand understanding of the challenges of business brings five startup companies into the spotlight at the University of Nevada, Reno on April 20.
The Sontag Entrepreneurship Award Competition, now in its 12th year in the College of Business, provides a $50,000 prize to the student-led team with the most-promising business plan.
The competition was established by a $1 million gift from University of Nevada, Reno alumnus Rick Sontag in 2011. The endowment created by his gift funds the $50,000 annual prize in perpetuity.
This year’s finalists include:
- Adventure Provisions, which has developed a line of high-quality dehydrated foods that meet the outdoor adventure needs of consumers with dietary restrictions. The company was founded by Sierra Hixson, an undergraduate student in behavioral psychology.
- Mimirs Well-Ness, developer of the Neonatal Femoral Protector, a medical appliance designed to reduce the chance of injury or death during circumcision. Its founder, Bridget Martinez, M.D., is a doctoral candidate in Basque studies.
- Robo Spec, creator of an automated robotic system for bridge inspection. The company was founded by Son Nguyen, a doctoral candidate in computer science and engineering/robotics, and Stephen Lencioni, a second-year student in the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine.
- Trellis, a company that has designed employee-training software to teach skills for safe and secure workplace environments. Its founder, Patrick Smith, is a doctoral candidate in psychology.
- TRYBE Summits, developer of outdoor team-bonding and training programs for use by business organizations, executives and high-performance professionals. The company was founded by Keaton Lynn, a master’s degree student in the College of Business.
The five finalists were winnowed from an initial field of 26 student-founded entrepreneurial startups during preliminary judging rounds in recent weeks. Now they will make their pitches to a panel of three judges at the April 20 event. Their presentations will be supported by written business plans that detail the need for the company’s product, its marketing plans, its staffing needs, its supply chain and its financial projections.
The winning team will be awarded a check for $50,000 at the conclusion of the event at the Joe Crowley Student Union.
Dick Bartholet, director of the Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition, said philanthropist Rick Sontag follows the competition closely from his Florida home. Sontag, who earned a master’s degree in physics from the University, built Unison Industries, an aerospace manufacturer with $200 million in annual sales that was sold to General Electric in 2002.
“The most important thing about investing in the next generation of entrepreneurs on the University of Nevada, Reno campus is that it’s the way of building the next generation of leaders for our country,” Sontag has explained.
Bartholet noted that previous competitors in the Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition included Dragonfly Energy Corp., a publicly held Reno company that has grown into a leading manufacturer of deep-cycle lithium-ion batteries.
Another previous competitor, Financially Fit Employees Inc., today works from its Reno headquarters to provide financial counseling services offered as an employee benefit by its client companies.
But Bartholet said benefits of the competition extend far beyond the successful companies that grow out of the work of student teams and their coaches and advisors.
Samantha Romanick, whose Campus Refill Initiative was a finalist in the 2019 Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition, said the experience pays dividends in her current work as an environmental researcher at the University of Rochester in New York State.
“The Sontag Competition helped me with my scientific career. Writing a business plan is similar to writing a scientific grant. You basically have to show the feasibility of your idea,” Romanick said. “I ‘sell’ my science now in my grant proposals, which has helped my career tremendously.”