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Students’ Big Ideas Get a Boost With New Center, $2 Million Gift From Randall Family

What’s the Big Idea?

The Randall Family Big Idea Competition — open to Pitt students from first-year to postdoc — is the region’s largest student innovation and entrepreneurship competition, and this year’s program was the largest ever. The competition encompassed 300 students from 13 different schools within the University — a nearly 40 percent increase over past years.

The 40 finalist teams vying for $100,000 in cash prizes to advance their innovations were selected from an initial field of 105 teams, said Babs Carryer, director of education and outreach at the University of Pittsburgh Innovation Institute.

This year’s participants were balanced evenly male and female; just over half — 55 percent — were undergraduates. Half of their innovations were healthcare related, including medical devices, diagnostics, assistive technologies and health-related information technology solutions.

Their big ideas were distilled into brief elevator pitches — “How to say what you’re doing and why it’s important in 60 seconds or less,” Carryer said — and illustrated through videos that are posted here.

On the day of the awards celebration, finalists made their pitches to a panel of outside judges who determined the cash prize winners.

Someday in the near future, the tomatoes grown in greenhouse farms may be harvested by a robot developed by a team of University of Pittsburgh students — a team whose early success stemmed from the vision of a former window company executive. That former CEO, Bob Randall, is a Pitt alumnus whose passion for entrepreneurship education, one might say, is increasingly bearing fruit.

About half the fresh tomatoes sold in the U.S. today come from greenhouse farms, said Daniel Garcia, a senior neuroscience major at Pitt. He presented his well-honed, fact-filled elevator pitch to a full house at the 10th Annual Randall Family Big Idea Competition awards showcase.

In the protected greenhouse environment, tomatoes are nurtured under optimal conditions, but harvesting is painstaking, labor-intensive and expensive for this $2 billion industry. Labor is the biggest uncertainty.

“The costs are skyrocketing, and the availability is plummeting,” continued Garcia onstage at the Charity Randall Theatre on Pitt’s campus. “We’re using advancements in robotics and machine learning to provide analytics and automation to the greenhouse industry.”

Garcia, of Four Growers, is confident in the company’s automated solution that can identify and pick ripe tomatoes. The innovation is attracting the attention of the greenhouse industry. And the young innovators are attracting attention in student entrepreneurship competitions.

Team Four Growers is a product of Pitt’s student entrepreneurship programming, coordinated by the Innovation Institute. Before taking on the Big Idea Challenge, the teammates participated in Pitt’s Startup Blitz weekend and Blast Furnace student accelerator program.

In addition to the $25,000 grand prize to Four Growers, this year’s winners, announced at the March 29 Big Ideas event, were:

Entrepreneurs across campus

Student entrepreneurship at Pitt has been accelerating in the decade since Pitt trustee Bob Randall (A&S ’65) and his family instituted the Randall Family Big Idea competition and its related experiential programming, based on their belief in the value of developing students’ entrepreneurial skills regardless of their intended career plans.

“Equipping Pitt students with entrepreneurial skills and mindsets is critical to preparing them for success in the real world, whether they intend to launch their own enterprise or lead innovation initiatives inside a larger organization,” said Randall, former president and CEO of window and door manufacturer Three Rivers Aluminum Company (TRACO).

As part of the Big Idea event, the Randall family’s expanded commitment to student entrepreneurship was announced: a seed gift of $2 million to launch a Big Idea Center. From within the Innovation Institute, the center will offer new resources, increased mentorship and a physical space for incubation activities for students of all levels and all disciplines.

The new center “builds on the momentum from this competition and will create a larger vision for student innovation and entrepreneurship on campus,” Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said. “The center’s inclusive innovation and entrepreneurship programming will benefit students whether they decide to take their talents to big companies or small startups, to nonprofits or to academia,” he said.

The creation of a physical Big Idea Center is a step toward the vision of someday offering an entrepreneurship certificate program and ultimately a discipline at Pitt, Randall said. “We now have an address; we have a home. That’s big. It’s beginning a platform we literally can build on.”

“Good things are happening,” Randall said. “The results of some of these ideas are in the marketplace today and earning money — real money — which is the name of the game.”

The value goes beyond dollars and cents. Randall expressed surprise at the amount of diversity among students participating in the competition, a benefit he hadn’t envisioned at the start.

“There’s cross-pollination,” he observed. “The cross-pollination not only of different disciplines within the University, but diversity from different cultures. It’s amazing,” Randall said.

Addressing the competitors, he added: “Learning to work with people on teams, and the experiential learning you’ve gone through in this competition, will really be beneficial to you no matter what you do.”