News & Media

Student entrepreneurs take center stage at WiSys Big Idea Tournament

La Crosse-Student entrepreneurs from across the Universities of Wisconsin took center stage on Friday, April 19, to showcase their business ideas at the WiSys Big Idea Tournament.

This year’s competition was hosted and sponsored by the Idea Fund of La Crosse, a venture capital fund that supports entrepreneurs in the Upper Midwest with seed- and early-stage funding. U.S. Bank also sponsored the event. The competition teaches cutting-edge lean startup business development tools, provides business mentorship, and allows participants to compete at a state level for a chance to win seed funding for their idea.

Wisconsin State Senator Brad Pfaff, whose district includes La Crosse, was there and gave opening remarks. Also in attendance and serving as a judge was Secretary Missy Hughes, CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, Wisconsin’s lead economic development organization.

“None of us knows where the next great idea is going to come from,” Pfaff said to the attendees. “But we all know this attendance and serving as judges: we need to foster in the state of Wisconsin the idea of creativity. We need to provide people with opportunity […] to continue to build an environment and an economy that’s built upon the idea of collaboration and working together, but also recognizing the importance of independence and creating this whole culture of innovation.”

UW-Whitewater senior Dylan Caruso earned first place in the competition and took home $2,500 in seed funding for his business, Rod Shell. Caruso came up with the idea for his invention after stepping on and breaking his father’s $300 fishing rod. After creating two early prototypes and learning what could work, he created Rod Shell, which is a rigid, portable fishing rod protection device. Rod Shell will help fishermen protect their investments and extend the lives of their fishing rods.

With his win at the WiSys Big Idea Tournament, Caruso will have the opportunity to share Rod Shell with a larger, statewide audience this summer at the WiSys SPARK Symposium. The annual WiSys event will be held from July 24-26 on the UW-Superior campus.

Nainil Jariwala, a UW-La Crosse sophomore, earned second place and $1,500 in funding for Arya’s, a ready-to-eat tikka masala brand. Jariwala, an international student from India, was looking to find a way to create authentic tikka masala that could be made in under 10 minutes. Jariwala conducted research on how to create it and make it taste authentic, the potential for market share, and where manufacturing could take place in order to create the tikka masala and bring it to the marketplace.

Michelle Stangler, a senior at UW-River Falls, earned third place and $750 in funding for Positivity in Ag. Positivity in Ag is an agriculture stories podcast hosted by Stangler, with plans to evolve into a social media first platform. Stangler’s research and surveys showed that 84% received agricultural news daily on social media, so by creating more of a social media presence and eventually adding an email newsletter, she would be able to make more of an impact with younger demographics and reach more people.

UW-Milwaukee senior Kayla Lokker received the People’s Choice Award and $250 for her business, Easy Wear Jewelry. Easy Wear Jewelry, which is patent-pending, is a hidden extender that can be added to a necklace clasp to make it easier for the necklace wearer to clasp and secure. Her goal is to make putting jewelry on user-friendly and aid in daily independence for people who live alone or have limited mobility.

Additional competitors who won their local qualifying competitions to present at Big Idea included:

  • Arstana, Caden Toutenhoofd, UW-La Crosse
  • Moxie Mocktails, Kayla Lokker, UW-Milwaukee
  • Bloc, Jessica Hagberg, UW-Green Bay
  • Safe Skin, Bri Noble and Mikayla Obsuszt, UW-Stout

Leaders from across the state came to La Crosse to judge the tournament. The judges for the event were:

  • Jennifer Gottwald, Director of Licensing, WARF
  • Jonathon Horne, Managing Director, Idea Fund of La Crosse
  • Missy Hughes, Secretary & CEO, WEDC
  • Joe Kremer, Director of Investor Networks, Wisconsin Technology Council
  • Idella Yamben, Director of Economic & Employer Engagement, Universities of Wisconsin

Students received mentorship from innovative business leaders who provided feedback and connections to further develop their ideas, businesses, and presentations. This year’s mentors were:

  • Jim Caesar, Executive Director, Development Association
  • Elaine Coughlin, Director of Investments & Entrepreneurship, The Pablo Group
  • Nichole Crust, Director, gBETA Urban League
  • Maia Donohue, Managing Director, IDEA Hub Accelerator at UW-Platteville
  • Mike Hill, Business Consultant, Wisconsin SBDC
  • Anne Hlavacka, Center Director, Wisconsin SBDC
  • Scott Mosley, CEO, StartingBlock Madison
  • Larry Wells, Director, Coulee Region Business Center
  • Josh Wilson, Attorney & Instructor of Entrepreneurship, UW-Eau Claire College of Business

To view photos from the WiSys Big Idea Tournament, click here.

To learn more about how WiSys helps entrepreneurs and fosters innovation across Wisconsin, visit the WiSys VentureHome website. WiSys and local partners are building startup hubs across the state and connecting entrepreneurs with startup resources to get their businesses and ideas up and running.

WiSys is a nonprofit organization that has a mission of supporting Universities of Wisconsin faculty, staff, students and alumni to innovate for impact. 

WiSys is the lead organization for a prestigious National Science Foundation Engine Development Award in Sustainable Agriculture. Learn more about the grant here.