A Look Back at spark: Where Fearless Ideas Start

by: Eric Elliot & Megan McPherson

Last Friday and Saturday October 20-21, 2017 was the second annual event of spark: Where Fearless Ideas Start hosted by the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship and Startup Shell. spark is a two-day idea brainstorming festival where students get together, form teams and come up with creative solutions to problems they care about. spark serves a valuable role in the programming ecosystem of the Dingman Center, as it gives students who don’t have a venture but are interested in entrepreneurship a way to explore how their passions can lead to business ideas.

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Day 1

DSC_0663On the first night, students showed up between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. where they signed in and received a few items arranged by color. These stickers would come into play later. While the students were enjoying pizza, cookies and soda, Ben Khakshoor from Startup Shell introduced Pitch Karaoke, an activity where people would come up and give mock pitches for fake companies they knew absolutely nothing about. Following Ben’s lead, students in groups of three took turns pitching and had a blast coming up with crazy ideas and business plans for these non-existent ventures. The pitches served as a great icebreaker, giving participants valuable experience in presenting in front of people and adapting to new situations on the spot.

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Pitching fake business “BitMotivate” at Pitch Karaoke

After Pitch Karaoke, our guest lecturer, Dr. Oliver Schlake, Clinical Professor at Robert H. Smith School of Business, senior business consultant, entrepreneur, and researcher, gave some brief background on what entrepreneurship is all about and how to start thinking like an entrepreneur. With his high energy and enthusiasm, Dr. Schlake grabbed the students’ attention and proceeded to lay out the agenda for the rest of the night. There would be four different breakout “Problemstorming” sessions focused on different topics, including “What Bugs You, “The Uber Of…”, “Future Customer Needs”, and “The Next Big Thing.” Students would split up into different rooms for each problemstorming session based on the color of the stickers found on their pens, notebooks, Post-Its, and Play-Doh to ensure they would meet new people and gain fresh perspectives on their ideas.

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Professor Oliver Schlake leading the Problemstorming warm-up

After the agenda, students were split up into their respective rooms and discussed their ideas for the first prompt at hand, “What Bugs You”. Throughout the problemstorming session, students gave each other constructive feedback and collaborated to push their ideas and refine them further. At the end of the session, students wrote their ideas on Post-It notes and pasted them to the board at the front of the room, giving other students the chance to see the thought process and ideas of their peers when they rotated. After around 10-15 minutes of brainstorming, students were called back to the main hall to share some ideas to be prepped by Dr. Schlake for the next prompt. This process was repeated three more times, and each problemstorming session helped students form the foundation of the unique business ideas they would pursue on Saturday.

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Inside a “Problemstorming” classroom

Following these exercises, students reconvened in the atrium where they were invited to present their business ideas in the form of a 30 second pitch to the entire group. Each student was given $203 in “startup funds”, and after the pitches, students donated these “funds” to the business ideas of their peers that they liked best. After all of the pitches were finished, funds were tallied up for all of the students that presented, and students with the most funding won prizes.

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Students offering funding for their favorite ideas

Before the first day wrapped up, students started to form their teams and decide on the business ideas they wanted to work on the next day. Overall, the first day of spark was filled with fantastic ideas, a high amount of energy and a strong sense of collaboration among the students.

Day 2

On Saturday, the student teams returned at 9:30 a.m. for coffee and doughnuts, courtesy of Terp Startup alumni FroDoh. The day kicked off with a presentation from adjunct professor Maurice Boissiere, who previously taught our last cohort of Idea Shell the spring. Maurice engaged the students in an interactive lecture that challenged each team to dig deeper on the ideas they had chosen on day 1. By the end of the presentation, they were able to think more specifically about what markets were most affected by the problems they were focusing on, and how to best craft a solution or product to appeal to that market.

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Maurice Boissiere leading a “Problem Definition and Solution Brainstorming” workshop

Once each team started thinking more critically about their business ideas, mentors from Startup Shell and the Dingman Center network were on site to answer questions and provide feedback. The mentors included Polly Vail, 2016 Rudy Award Winner for Mentor of the Year and Dingman Center Entrepreneur-in-Residence; Chanda Arya, COO and co-founder of UMD alumni company Grip Boost; Nina Silverstein, Terp Startup alumna, recent Smith MBA graduate and founder of social enterprise 2B; Simon Amato and Holly Wilson, the founders of FroDoh; and from Startup Shell, president Matt Fan as well as 2017 Pitch Dingman Competition finalists Benjamin Khakshoor of CourseHunter and Nathalyn Nunoo of POSH.

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Introducing the mentors: (left to right) Holly Wilson, Simon Amato, Nina Silverstein, Matt Fan, Chanda Arya, Polly Vail, Nathalyn Nunoo & Ben Khakshoor

After a working lunch, Chris Rehkamp and Megan McPherson from the Dingman Center did a short workshop on “How to Present Your Idea” to prepare the teams for pitching their businesses in a “Show and Tell” that afternoon. The teams would have 3 minutes to present their slides with an additional 2 minutes of Q&A. In the end, 13 teams pitched their businesses. While their peers selected one winner of an Audience Choice prize, the Dingman Center staff, Startup Shell and the on-site mentors selected 5 teams to win fun superlative awards. Check out the teams that pitched, their ideas and the awards won below:

BallrBest Team Name – an app that helps people join pick-up sports games

Clothe Me – a platform for consumers who would like to rent and borrow casual-wear

Community CompostMost Creative – a social enterprise that sells compost bins to governments of developing countries and then donates the compost to farmers

Empathy Engineers – Most Likely to Get a VC to Call You Back – a platform for student engineers to donate their time and skills to perform tech-support for aid organizations focusing on disaster relief

Foresight – a company that provides drones to organizations that need to conduct inspections that would be dangerous for workers

Local Guide – a platform for tourists to connect with locals in the country they’re visiting for exclusive, one-of-a-kind cultural experiences

MoneyHopeChangemaker Award – a platform for donating to the homeless via an anonymous QR-code system that eliminates the need for ready-cash and uncomfortable interaction

Necessario – a social enterprise that sells condoms to people in developing countries at-cost to help prevent STDs and teenage pregnancy

NEXText – Best Team Spirit – a platform for students in STEM programs to rent a textbook on a subscription basis

Occurr – an app that helps users discover local events that are happening right now

PresentApple – a platform to buy gifts and have them sent personally gift-wrapped to your specifications

Solaundry – Audience Choice – a social enterprise that provides women in developing countries with a solar-powered laundry system

Trashionate – Best Branding – a smart trash can that automatically sorts items into recycling, compost and landfill


Photography by Alex Polyakov. Check out the rest of the photos on the Dingman Center Facebook page.

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