Annual “Innovation Challenge” offers students chance to solve pandemic-related problems

The challenge will take place virtually with the first-place team taking home a $5,000 prize.

Each year, The Doherty Center for Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship calls upon Elon students to compete with other universities to solve a real-life problem through the Innovation Challenge. This year, the target is the global COVID-19 pandemic that has impacted lives around the globe.

The challenge is an opportunity for innovation, as well as connection, said Regan O’Donnell ’21, student co-chair for this year’s event.

“Working behind the scenes for the Elon Innovation Challenge has given me the opportunity to connect with students, faculty, mentors, and more that have taught me so much about the importance of innovation and creativity,” said O’Donnell. “One of the biggest lessons that sticks out to me is any innovation, no matter how small, has the power to make a difference.”

Students form teams of two to five members, with each team representing majors from at least two areas of study. The teams will come up with a process, prototype or marketing campaign to “pivot” the problem into a solution. The winning team will take home a prize of $5,000. The second-place team will be awarded $2,500, and the third-place team will receive $1500.

This year, the challenge is being co-sponsored by Elon and Hollins University. Joining O’Donnell as co-chairs for this year’s event are Kobie Williams ‘22, Aisling Sullivan ‘21 and Angy Aguilar ‘22. Doherty Center Director Alyssa Martina and Program Assistant Kim Phipps are also leading the challenge, along with Professor of Chemistry Karl Sienerth, who is faculty chair for the challenge. The team is assisted by Hollins University’s Karen Messer-Bourgoin and Zahin Mahbuba.

O’Donnell, a Doherty Center Scholar Intern, became involved with the challenge last year. She continued to facilitate the challenge after seeing the difference that innovation could make, and is enthusiastic about encouraging all students to participate.

“Innovation and creativity is not specific to any major or discipline, innovation is in the fabric of everything,” she said. “Innovation stems from creativity, and creativity thrives with different viewpoints and perspectives.”

O’Donnell and the rest of her team were able to implement creative solutions to make the challenge possible this year, while prioritizing the safety of participants.

A picture of the winning team from the 2020 Innovation Challenge.

This year, the focus of the challenge is to identify and pitch a solution to a problem that a small business, nonprofit or start-up has faced during the pandemic. Unlike previous years when the problem was announced the day of the challenge, the issue has been released ahead of time to provide the teams with time to prepare their virtual presentation.

“Even though the challenge is virtual, the excitement is still there,” said Sienerth. “When the leadership team meets, you can hear it in the voices and see it on the faces. Every one of us knows of a business; a local mom and pop restaurant, your favorite gym, or a community group that is struggling with maintaining their solvency in the current situation.”

For the first round, teams will submit a two- to three-minute video by March 6 that includes their chosen organization, its problem and the pandemic-related pivot that they would like to develop. From there, teams will advance to the second round, where they will receive a $200 stipend to develop a working prototype and begin to implement their solution. Along with the financial prizes, students will benefit from the chance to assist local enterprises who have struggled throughout the past year.

At the end of the challenge, all participants will receive a Certificate of Completion, and the opportunity to attend a workshop with the Student Professional Development Center for help on including the event on a resume.

More information and about the upcoming challenge can be found here.