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Seeding the Innovation Economy

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Competitions, community support groups are building the next generation of entrepreneurs

Competition and collaboration might seem like mutually exclusive concepts. But within Delaware’s expanding entrepreneurial community, there’s plenty of room for both, with strong collaborative bonds helping to make competitions more meaningful.

Dan Young

The latest iteration of Delaware’s collaboration-competition blend is neoFest, a daylong combination entrepreneurial summit, startup competition and innovation showcase. Set to make its debut May 7 at the Chase Center in Wilmington, the conference was cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak. However, the get-together is now being planned for spring 2021. 

NeoFest was set to include the finals of the University of Delaware’s Hen Hatch competition, giving UD’s blossoming entrepreneurs more exposure than ever before.

“It’s more than just a competition. It’s about learning, about connections, about meeting potential customers,” says Vince DiFelice, who coordinates Hen Hatch through UD’s Horn Entrepreneurship program.

Schools see these competitions as a great way to engage students. And the students themselves, who have grown up watching television shows like “Shark Tank” and “The Apprentice,” see them as “a natural state of being,” says Dan Young, director of the Doctor of Business Administration program at Goldey-Beacom College and moderator of the school’s Startup Grind, an entrepreneurial support program that, among other things, helps students prepare for pitch competitions.

Supporting entrepreneurship at all levels

Opportunities start early in Delaware, beginning with the Diamond Challenge, a competition for high school students run by the Horn program. Now in its eighth year, it’s actually international in scope, drawing entrants from 70 countries and 40 states since its inception. Lately, more than 700 teams have entered annually, with the best 70 or so submissions being invited to the finals at UD in mid-April, according to Julie Frieswyk, assistant director for youth programs at the Venture Development Center of the Lerner College of Business and Economics. Most teams show up, even if they have to travel halfway around the world. And why not, when they can compete for a share of $100,000 in cash prizes and in-kind technical support?

Julie Frieswyk

Delaware usually has a strong presence, Frieswyk says, largely because of growing entrepreneurship programs at the Charter School of Wilmington, Newark Charter School and Ursuline Academy, among others. Participants in the Dual School, a Wilmington-based experiential learning program that draws from several public and private schools, have also entered their social impact projects in the Diamond Challenge. In addition, some Dual School students have startup grants from two national programs, PeaceFirst.org and the GripTape Learning Challenge, according to Dual School head Zack Jones.

At the college level, Hen Hatch is the big name in Delaware, drawing a total of about 100 applications a year from two groups: UD students, and UD alumni, faculty and staff, DiFelice says. The six finalists — three from each group — vie for a total of $100,000 in prizes; a mix of cash and services, usually marketing, legal or accounting. 

Competition isn’t at the heart of every entrepreneurial promotional program.

At Goldey-Beacom, Startup Grind is part of a global community with more than 600 chapters, giving students access to advice and networking opportunities well beyond the Pike Creek campus, Young says. But much of the activity occurs in and around the college, with business owners visiting to speak with students and students offering their skills, often in coding, social media and videography, to support newer local businesses that need help in those areas. 

“It’s more an entrepreneurial support organization than a competition,” Young says. “A student can say ‘I’m a coder,’ and hook up with an entrepreneur who needs help with coding.”

Extending access to the community

Other initiatives, like First Founders and Reinventing Delaware, extend beyond campuses.

Garry Johnson

First Founders, launched last year by Horn alumnus Garry Johnson, is a 12-week business accelerator that aims to boost individuals who have struggled to find a home in the entrepreneurial marketplace, especially women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“People in underrepresented groups are really getting the crumbs,” he says. “We’re trying to push the needle, make a difference in the world.”

The 2019 cohort had eight participants who met at the Route 9 Library near Wilmington for four hours on Saturdays and for an hour in the evening once or twice a week. This year, Johnson had 30 register.

While last year’s participants had a variety of projects, including development of a hair-care product line and a video game to help young people learn about mental health, Johnson hopes to concentrate his efforts in the fintech sector, all the better to make connections in a growing Delaware market.    

Reinventing Delaware, a project of the Pete du Pont Freedom Foundation, fosters collaboration to make Delaware a better place to live and work. The Foundation invites 100 people to a dinner each year, sets them up at 10 tables of 10, and gives everyone five minutes to pitch an idea at their table and answer questions. When they’re done, they select the best idea from each table, says Scott Malfitano, the CSC vice president who chairs the foundation.

The foundation’s board then vets the ideas and chooses five to receive six months of consulting services. Previous winners have included: Zip Code Wilmington, a coding boot camp; The Warehouse, a community center for Wilmington teens; and Second Chances Farm, a hydroponic agriculture program that trains ex-offenders for meaningful employment. In the past, Reinventing Delaware has awarded one $10,000 grant a year, Malfitano says. Starting this year, it will choose two winners. 

While competitions may offer prize money, that’s not necessarily their biggest reward, DiFelice says.

Ideas that win at these pitch fests don’t necessarily turn out to be winners in the marketplace, but participants make valuable contacts, secure mentors and get professional advice as they develop their projects, he notes.

“You learn how to solve problems, you see what your value is,” he says, and that brings the real payoff, “finding a job that is better aligned with your interests and your passion.”

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