Some of Norman's brightest young entrepreneurs gathered to pitch their ideas to the public Thursday evening.
The setting was the Studio of the Sooner Theatre, where six teams consisting of high school and college students came together for the third annual Norman Innovation Challenge . The goal was to pitch their start-up businesses and products to business leaders, entrepreneurs and others in attendance.
The competition was split into two divisions, with three teams from Moore-Norman Technology Center and three teams from OU squaring off against each other for a $500 prize for the winners of both divisions. The six finalists were selected at the OU Entrepreneurship Expo in November.
The innovation challenge, hosted by the Norman Economic Development Coalition, aims to give young aspiring entrepreneurs an opportunity to get their foot in the door with local business owners. Maureen Hammond, the coalition's interim president and CEO, said her group offers students other opportunities as well.
"We want to foster entrepreneurial spirit in our young people," Hammond said. "We also want to provide them with connections to our business community and to show them that Norman has a support system. It's a great place to live and to start a business. We're really working hard to keep our best and brightest here."
The competition started before the studio doors opened on Thursday, as all six finalists gave a 10-minute closed-door presentation to the judges prior to the public presentations. The judges selected the winners from the technology center and OU based on the closed-door presentations.
However, the public presentations challenged the finalists to give their pitch in 90 seconds to attendees. The Moore-Norman finalists presented first, with the judges announcing the winner after the last finalist presented.
The Moore-Norman Technology Center winner was Mason Love with his new start-up, Rusentic. Rusentic, Love said, is a custom tag business, and it operates by taking small business logos or other custom designs and putting them on wood, such as maple and walnut. Love then brings the wood to the OU Innovation Hub and cuts out the tag designs and places them on items such as rustic leather bags.
"It's a unique way for small business to advertise their business," Love said.
Love is apart of the entrepreneurship program at Moore-Norman Technology Center, which gives high school students and adults the opportunity to develop and market their own business. Classes include finance, business communications and a capstone project.
Love said the OU Entrepreneurship Expo and the innovation challenge have been great opportunities to work on presenting his business and communicating with business leaders in the community.
"This is something completely new to me, so I just wanted to go up there and give it my all," Love said. "I was nervous and excited just going up there and trying to say the right things about my business and I was able to come in first place. It feels great."
The OU team winner featured a three-man squad of Brandon Thomas, Caden Parham and Noah Rudolph with their start-up, Olio. Olio is a local art sharing platform where local artists can go online, create a profile, and sell their art in local areas.
Thomas said it's a great new way for local artists to get their name and work in the community, and it gives art lovers a new way to support local artists.
"We haven't really done anything like this so we were nervous," Thomas said. "The other competitors were really good, so it really challenged us. But this helps motivate us to keep going and see what we can do with our company."
In addition to the technology center and OU presentations, the students from local business Wrist World gave a "community spotlight" presentation to update attendees on their business. The students said their plan is to revisit the New York Toy Fair in February with their finished product to potentially make connections with some of the big companies in attendance.
Denise Parris, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at OU, said the Norman Innovation Challenge is a good reminder of the capabilities of the youth in the community.
"My goal as a professor is to help students find the growth and confidence they need to succeed," Parris said. "And as we can see from the students that have presented tonight, the future of Norman and the world looks to be in good hands."