On April 19, 2023, 15 teams from Aquinas College drove to Grand Rapids Community College Technical Center with poster boards and PowerPoints, ready to pitch products and services to a jury of Grand Rapids professionals and entrepreneurs in the MWest Challenge. The student venture competition brought together a total of 92 teams from nine West Michigan colleges and universities not only for a chance to win some of the $12,000 total prize money, but also to network with local professionals, professors, and students.

Pitches were assessed based on a few requirements: they must address a problem, and provide a solution that is original, thoughtful, and innovative. They should also include a value proposition, competitive analysis, targeted market, revenue model, and sales and marketing strategy. All of this must be made clear in a three-minute pitch. 

The 92 teams were split into three flights: Innovation Showcases A and B who delivered three-minute pitches to walking juries aided by poster boards and nine 10-minute pitch finalists who presented one-by-one with PowerPoint presentations and video. 

Two Aquinas teams walked away with $1,250 and $750 respectively to put towards bringing their pitches to life.

“When we walked in, we thought there’s no way we’re going to win,” said Anna Castle, a junior and double major in Business Administration and Counseling Psychology. “I’m practicing with my notecards and thinking this is a lot of people!”

Castle, Aaron Gustin, Claire Hines, and Emma Bailey pitched a product called SustainTape, a biodegradable and reusable athletic tape. Three of the students on the team are athletes at Aquinas College, and they were keenly aware of how much they send to the landfill. Traditional athletic tape is made from materials that do not naturally break down. By switching to SustainTape, athletics departments and retailers could reduce their ecological footprint.

Their product and pitch earned them first place in Showcase A. They want to use the $1,250 prize money to develop a working prototype and test market in West Michigan.

In Showcase B, Zach Bester, Nate Shaffer, and Thomas Allsopp pitched a product aimed at cattle ranchers called EasyRanch. To supplement protein in the diets of cattle, ranchers provide them with a protein mixture in large plastic tubs which they set out in their pastures. The cattle are also given salt blocks that help neutralize their nitrate-heavy grass diet. EasyRanch combines salt licks and protein into a solid edible product.

 Three Students holding an oversized Check for EasyRanch

“The salt block is in the shape of a bucket, so it eliminates the plastic waste,” said sophomore Zach Bester, who has six years of ranching experience. “There is not a product like this on the market yet.”

The pitch earned the team second place in Showcase B and a prize of $750. They will  introduce the product to ranchers in the South Texas area this summer and plan to attend a farmers’ meeting regarding sustainable issues in the industry.

Another team’s product landed them in a flight with the top eight teams who each delivered a 10-minute pitch competing for $3,500. iParty was created by Scott Hopkins, Tess Foster, Nyandeng Anyang, and Isabella Thomas to address the safety concerns associated with partying, while also helping students connect to one another. Students can post parties to the app, send invites, and manage capacity, while attendees can review the event’s vibe and safety. While the team did not place in the top three, their inclusion in the top eight flight signaled a strong interest in their product and is a testament to their pitch. 

Of the 15 teams from Aquinas College, 12 finished in the top third of all teams at the competition. SustainTape and EasyRanch teams walked away with prize money, but everyone who participated left with new connections, professional feedback on their pitches, and valuable experience that will help lay the foundation for fruitful careers.