The InVenture Prize: Georgia Tech way of promoting young entrepreneurs

At first glance, The InVenture Prize at Georgia Tech appears as a glorified science fair, complete with errant explosions and contraptions worthy of a Rube Goldberg cartoon.

The scene at the second annual contest, held in March at Georgia Tech's Ferst Center for the Arts, played out as an unscripted reality show and an inventor's showdown. Cheering fans, charismatic judges and coverage from Georgia Public Broadcasting drew comparisons to American Idol. The life-changing power of the competition for eight student finalists extended far beyond the $15,000 first prize or Idol-like notoriety.

A portmanteau of invent and adventure, the InVenture Prize sprung from Georgia Tech professors' desire to showcase engineering students' innovation and bring their ideas to market. Eight finalists presented their ideas to a panel of judges charged with determining innovation, marketability, market size, inventor passion and probability of success.

The payout for an invention with potential? First place winner Patrick Whaley walked away with $15,000 as well as the $5,000 People's Choice Award for his strengthening apparel. Sarah Vaden received $10,000 for second place and her novel drum set that changes pitch with the help of compressed air. Both inventors will receive assistance in filing a patent application, valued around $20,000, along with their prize money.

Vaden estimates that it will require at least $60,000 to bring her invention to market. Not surprisingly, practicality drove many of the entries. Niche devices such as the Koozie Cooler, a refrigerator-like contraption that cools a can 10 minutes faster than its full-size counterpart, went head to head with a car-powered water pump designed for third-world countries.

Developed by professors Craig Forest, Merrick Furst and Ravi Bellamkonda as well as Vice Provost Ray Vito, the InVenture Prize at Georgia Tech emerged as an opportunity to showcase technically sound, marketable inventions. Determined to channel and define the future of innovation, the prize was developed as enrollment in engineering schools skyrocketed, rising 8% in the 2007-08 school year from the year before.

According to Vito, more than 100 students expressed interest the first year's contest, which culminated in the March 17 event. He hopes that future classes will continue the "culture of innovation" fostered during the InVenture Prize's first two years. Ultimately, he sees the contest as an opportunity to "tell [students] a little about creativity, innovation, what it takes and how to express that."

Patrick Whaley's prize-winning idea was four years and more than $20,000 in the making. After winning both the People's Choice Award and first prize, the 23-year-old Duluth, Ga. native wants to pursue marketing his weighted workout wear idea rather than licensing it.

The fifth-year mechanical engineering student presides over OmegaWear as the founder and CEO of the athletic apparel company. After surviving an armed robbery, Whaley used his own invention to recover his strength and overcome gunshot wounds.

He's in the process of shopping the hydro-gel infused clothing to JCPenney, Rawlings and NFL trainers, among others. Still, the student entrepreneur says he didn't fully realize the impact of the InVenture Prize until the middle of the contest.

"I was backstage and I was already taking orders," said Whaley. "The $20,000 is extremely liberating...I can kind of have a fresh start."

Despite stiff competition, Whaley believes that passion and a keen understanding of his target market set him apart – a sentiment echoed by second-place winner and Huddleston, Va. native Sarah Vaden.

Vaden credits her sophomore-level aerospace engineering studies for teaching her the value of hard work, but actually formulated the idea for her invention while in high school chemistry class. A drummer for 10 years, back problems prevented her from carrying 10 to 15 drums to each gig. A friend who participated in the first incarnation of the prize told her she had nothing to lose in entering her instrument this year.

After graduation, Vaden wants to work on high-speed aerospace systems and run a music school on the side, perhaps using her dynamic drum. Until then, she's exploring venture capital and waiting for the right opportunity to present itself. According to Dr. Vito, this sort of flexibility, combined with faculty support, enables students to take their creations to the next level.

"This is a very broad funnel," he said. "They don't have to figure it out day one."

Vito makes it clear that while the competition provides a foundation for a business plan, it stands at the juncture of innovation and entrepreneurship. He would like to see the contest expand to other universities, as the founders deliberately dubbed it the InVenture Prize at Georgia Tech.

After 25,000 Georgians watched this year's contest, Vito says he and his co-founders are "astounded" by the level of interest. He said he's already receiving e-mails from parents whose children want to become engineers and from Georgia Tech students interested in getting a head start for next year's contest.

"[Students] are very ambitious and creative and excited about things. They love to just tell you about their ideas. We're providing a platform for that."
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