Past participants at The Big Sell Entrepreneurs in Action contest have pitched a wide range of ideas: biodegradable to-go soup containers, solar cells, all-in-one portable campfires, closed-finger Mixed Martial Arts gloves and a device that teaches people how to draw.
This year, the competition has gotten even bigger, with more prize money and categories.
Big Sell organizers have doubled the amount of prize money to $120,000. They also created technology, open, and social entrepreneurship or environmental categories so widely disparate ideas – say for musical spoons and kiosk-based diabetic retinopathy screenings – do not compete head-to-head.
"We're trying to capture more ideas and innovations than in the past," said Dushan Nikolovski, director of the Purdue Calumet's Center for Entrepreneurship Success.
The Center is sponsoring the annual event, which is now in its third year.
"The whole purpose is to impact economic growth," he said. "If we showcase entrepreneurs and give offices space to all the winners, maybe they open businesses. Maybe they create five, 10 or 20 jobs and make an economic impact."
Entrepreneurs have come from as far away as Yale and Texas Christian universities, but a goal is to get more Northwest Indiana residents to participate, Nikolovski said.
Participants get two minutes to pitch ideas to judges and audience members, who vote with clickers. The idea is to democratize the judging and make it more like the marketplace where the products would either flourish or flounder, he said.
Nikolovski came up with the clickers idea after attending other entrepreneurial competitions and puzzling over some of the judge's decisions. Letting potential consumers vote prevents head-scratching dismissals of worthy offerings,
"The audience does not make mistakes," he said. "They know what they want. They know if they would buy it for themselves."
Winners and second-place in each category also get free office space for a year in the Hammond INnovation Center and a business plan from Purdue Cal students, as well as volunteered legal, accounting and marketing services.
They also could potentially land a funding opportunity of up to $1 million, since the statewide entrepreneurial initiative Elevate Ventures will have representatives on-hand to assess the presentations.
Entrepreneurs who do not win do not necessarily walk away empty-handed because they gain exposure and experience promoting their products, Nikolovski said. A participant for the first Big Sell has gone onto sell her wares on the home shopping network QVC.
Real Food Blends founder Julie Bombacino highlighted her all-natural feeding tube meals at The Big Sell and did not win the contest, but secured $250,000 in start-up capital from Elevate Ventures.
Applications will be accepted at www.thebigsell.org until March 1. Those accepted into the competition will be notified by March 7.
The event, slated for March 29 at the Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza in Merrillville, costs $25 to attend, including for the selected participants. The door fee includes breakfast, lunch and cookies.
For more information, email info@thebigsell.