Last Friday was the start of something new and extraordinary at the University of Maryland: spark: Where Fearless Ideas Start, a two-day idea festival co-hosted by the Dingman Center and Startup Shell featuring design-thinking and brainstorming activities that encouraged students to find solutions to problems they want to solve. spark has filled an essential niche at UMD by providing students who are interested in entrepreneurship but haven’t yet founded a venture with a means to discover and explore how their passions can translate into business ideas.
On Friday night, spark kicked off in the Smith School of Business’s Frank Auditorium with a design-thinking exercise led by Dean Chang, the Associate Vice President for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The prompt for the exercise, “Redesigning Mondays”, allowed students to dip their toes into the brainstorming process by giving them a universal problem to solve.
After the design-thinking warm-up, students enjoyed pizza and cookies, and visited tables hosted by the Dingman Center, Startup Shell, Do Good Challenge and Enactus to learn about opportunities available to student entrepreneurs and changemakers at UMD. With a full stomach and an open mind, they then began filing into brainstorming sessions focused on varying themes, including technology, sustainability, entertainment, style, health and education. Dingman staff and community founders acted as facilitators to help encourage discussion through brainstorming prompts. Each room came alive with conversation, connecting Terps from all across campus with new people and new perspectives.
After two brainstorming sessions, the students were released into the atrium with one goal: mingle and find a team. By this time, many students had already started conversations with one another over problems they wanted to solve together. Once teams were formed, several celebrated the moment with a fun commemorative photo at the “MirrorMe” photo booth generously provided by Alex and Anastasiia Polyakov.
With day one of spark drawing to a close, we were all curious to see how many students would hold onto Friday night’s energy and come back ready to find solutions to their problem on Saturday morning. We were not disappointed. Attendees from the previous night arrived the following day bright-eyed and eager to get to work.
Saturday’s programming featured two workshops, “Problem Definition/Customer Discovery” and “Prototyping and Testing”, both led by Rachel Thompson from the Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Through these workshops, the students defined the scope of their problem, identified a solution and then had fun building a visual representation of their idea using yarn, construction paper, balloons and more.
To help spark attendees finetune their ideas, the Dingman Center brought in two Dingman Fridays veterans to act as mentors for the day: Polly Vail, an Entrepreneur-in-Residence and the 2016 Rudy Award winner for Mentor of the Year, and Rashad Moore, a serial entrepreneur and Dingman Center Angels investor. Whenever the teams had opportunities to break out and get to work on their idea, Polly and Rashad were on hand to provide valuable feedback and support.
At 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, students were able to sign up to present their ideas at a “Show and Tell.” Their presentations were judged by a panel that included the Dingman Center’s managing director, Elana Fine, Startup Shell president Amritha Jayanti as well as Bill and Matt Fishlinger, whose generous donation made spark possible. Each team’s presentation was impressive, especially considering the relatively small amount of time they had to work on it from start to finish.
Congratulations to all of the “top-picks” and to everyone who presented:
Ögle – First Place – a means for artisans in rural and isolated areas to piggyback off of established distribution chains via symbiotic corporate partnerships.
Blinky – Second Place – QR code based technology that would allow you to friend/follow someone on all their social media channels at once.
Gym Buddies – Third Place – an app that would help pair you with a gym partner with a complementary schedule and exercise regimen.
MedMe – a Yelp-like app that would give patients a means to review doctors.
PrescriptBit – a Fitbit that would remind you when it’s time to take a prescription.
Steam Dream – a program that uses a high school student’s extra-curricular interests as a platform to teach them essential life skills.
Feast – an app for people with dietary restrictions to see simplified restaurant menus that would eliminate what they can’t eat.
Early Learning Without Walls – a community center that provides early educational funding based on the most current scientific research.
My Niche – a peer-to-peer based career mentorship program for students from low-income backgrounds.
The Dingman Center staff and Startup Shell representatives were all amazed to see the quality of the ideas presented, and the teams were rightfully proud of what they were able to accomplish in just one weekend. Many spark teams have kept their momentum and are now enrolled in Idea Shell, the first phase of our Accelerator Program. From spark to ignition, these teams and their fearless ideas will continue to grow and evolve. We can’t wait to see where they’ll end up.
Photo credits: Alex Polyakov, Kirk Morris