Community college starts ‘Shark Tank’ like contest to match investors and entrepreneurs

 Bucks County Community College plans to bring together local entrepreneurs and investors with the Start Me Up Challenge, a contest based on the television show Shark Tank. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

Bucks County Community College plans to bring together local entrepreneurs and investors with the Start Me Up Challenge, a contest based on the television show Shark Tank. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

It probably won’t be as cut-throat as Shark Tank, but Bucks County Community College is launching a contest inspired by that TV show.

The Start Me Up Challenge is offering up to $100,000 and mentoring by area investors to entrepreneurs with winning concepts.

Bill Borchert, CEO of Integrated Financial Services, brought the concept to the school to get people excited about being in business.

“I love the show Shark Tank,” he said. “I’m a big believer in business in America today, and I think we’ve had a dearth of people going out and creating businesses for a while. Shark Tank sort of recreated people getting excited about being in business.”

Wanting to harness that energy locally, Borchert shopped the concept around to several four-year universities in New Jersey who weren’t interested. But after moving to Bucks County a year ago, he said the community college was immediately interested.

Tracy Timby, the dean of business studies at the college, said the contest serves as outreach for the school.

“It’s really a threefold project to get our name out there associated with entrepreneurship so that people in the county start seeing us as a real resource if that’s where they find themselves in terms of launching their business or a concept or taking it to the next level,” she said.

Timbly said it also helps instill in students the “ideas of persistence and resilience that employers want” and shows the community that the school is “not just your typical community college.”

She said it’s also a good way for the school to gauge what’s going on.

“What ideas are out there? Are they science- and technology-based or are they more brick-and-mortar business based?” she asked. “Then our programs can be more responsive and in turn we’re helping people get their businesses off the ground or take it to the next level.”

Chris Chookagian grew up in Bucks County and played high school field hockey at Quakertown Senior High School as one of just a few guys on the team.

At first he wanted to start a boys field hockey club, but now his goal is to build a multi-sport complex for many different youth sports.

IMG 2068Chris Chookagian was one of the few boys on the Quakertown Senior High School field hockey team. (Courtesy of Chris Chookagian)

If his idea is selected, the Bucks County Community College student said one-on-one mentoring would be as valuable as the funding.

“I absolutely would love the mentorship and especially from the people that are involved judging and actually the ones that are investing because they obviously have experience working in Bucks County,” the 20-year-old said.

Contest judge Borchert said he hopes to see a range of ideas from Bucks County residents.

“We’re looking for ideas from opening up an Italian bakery, if viable, to technology,” he said. “We’re looking for a variety of concepts, both brick-and-mortar and technology, that we’d be interested in investing in.”

He said the reason for the contest approach instead of a scholarship or other traditional funding is he and his wife, who have donated charitable scholarships in New Jersey, wanted to do more.

“We decided a couple of years ago that we wanted to not just contribute but find ways to invest in people, to help people learn how to take an idea and make it into something that can provide benefits for other people and make money,” he said.

Another contest submission is from a team of the community college’s engineering students.

Their project, the Windcatcher Max, is a wind turbine that was a top ten finalist at this summer’s National Science Foundation competition. It takes up less space than existing ones, doesn’t threaten wildlife and recycles water. They’re currently working on a feasibility study and an investment could help with product development.

DSC 0458Students Albert Bulik, Aneeqa Karu and Pavel Lelyukh discuss ways to improve the Windcatcher Max while holding a model of their turbine. (Sara Hoover/WHYY)

“I definitely think that being part of it will be definitely a good experience to understand what goes on behind the scenes of being part of this type of competition,” said student Pavel Lelyukh. “The NSF competition was mostly just a proposal of an innovation. It wasn’t like here’s our business plan and here’s who we’re actually planning to market.”

The team’s faculty advisor and physics professor Christine Delahanty said this opportunity will help her students learn a business approach besides their science one.

“They want to make sure that their analysis is worthy and that their feasibility study is worthy and that’s the separation I think between somebody who’s experienced in industry and creating proposals and going for the business deal as opposed to taking on the science aspect,” Delahanty said. “You write a proposal, you get the job and then you make it happen. That’s the business world.”

The contest is open to any Bucks County resident 16 or older.

“Most of the students are actively working while they’re working their way through college,” investor Bill Borchert said, who hopes to see the event become annual. “It’s hard to see a big separation from students and the community. We as a team thought that opening up to everyone initially, including professors, would be great.”

The first round of applications will be accepted through Thursday, Feb. 23.

Finalists will pitch investors –Bill Borchert, Gene Epstein, Brett Kane, Ron Walker and Russ Coulon– at the college in April.

More information can be found at StartMeUpBucks.com.

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