Mike Santo has a problem.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha IT innovation major who moonlights as a disc jockey can't efficiently search through his audio files without disrupting the flow of music.
So Santo developed an advanced audio library management tool that recommends songs to DJs. It works like Pandora, a service that lets you enter a song or artist and then plays similar selections. Santo's invention allows a DJ to manipulate the playlist.
Santo and nine other UNO students competed Monday night in a elevator-pitch contest. (“Elevator pitch” means the summary of an idea should be delivered in the time span of an elevator ride, or about 30 seconds to 2 minutes.)
The UNO entrants had 90 seconds to explain their product and its feasibility, market sales potential and benefit to society. The contest was sponsored by the Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Franchising at UNO's College of Business Administration.
The top three winners received cash prizes of $500, $250 and $100 and free consulting to help develop their product.
Santo took home the grand prize and, because his product already is developed, will use the money to hire a designer to “make it look cool.”
While it was the idea that got Santo and the others into the contest — the 10 were chosen from a pool of 180 — it was their 90-second pitches that gave winners the edge, said Dale Eesley, director of the innovation center.
“Ninety seconds goes by so fast, so you can't explain in detail how your product works,” he said. “The key is to get the audience and judges interested. You have to explain there's something wrong in the world and you can fix it with your product.”
Before the contest started, Willy Theisen, an old pro at starting businesses, showed the students how it's done. The founder of Godfather's Pizza and, more recently, Pitch Pizzeria gave his own pitch, describing a scenario of a 27-year-old asking a bank for a $50,000 loan to start a pizza place.
The entrepreneur was nervous and uncomfortable when he asked the banker to take a chance on his idea, one similar to Big Fred's and Pizza Hut, Theisen said.
“(The banker) said when they come in, they wanted to make sure I'm there every night,” said Theisen, revealing that the anecdote actually was the story of how he got Godfather's off the ground.
He followed the banker's advice and has been in the restaurant business ever since.
It was the second time students heard from Theisen.
At a pre-contest coaching session Sunday night at Pitch Pizzeria, students practiced their presentations and were critiqued by Theisen and other experts on how to perfect them.
“Yours is a team approach. I like that,” Theisen said to one group. “There's strength in numbers.”
“Get to the point faster. And your hand in your pocket? That's a no-no,” UNO speech instructor Marlina Davidson said to another.
“A lot of it's theater. It's performance,” Eesley said. “It's that you care enough about your idea to have passion.”
Allison Watson won second place for her idea for a website that provides support through live chats to people affected by cancer while generating funds for new cancer research ideas.
Taking third place was Chad Zimmerman, who proposed a cutout system for motorcycle exhaust pipes that controls noise levels.
Eesley said the best thing about the contest — which is in its third year — is that it engages students from all areas of study. He has seen aviation and theater students apply and win.
Without the contest, Eesley said, those students might have never considered looking into entrepreneurship.
“The great thing about this is you can have a great idea in chemistry or it could be in gerontology,” Eesley said.
“It gets students from lots of majors involved and says 'Hey, entrepreneurship has something to offer.'”
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