Pitch competitions giving UMD students edge in ag
COLLEGE PARK, Md. (Oct. 17, 2017) — Larisa Cioaca starts many of her agricultural business classes with a question: What’s the most entrepreneurial and innovative industry?
Most students think of the technology sector churning out the latest iPhone, but, Cioaca contends, “Agriculture is the original form of entrepreneurship. So much of human life has come from innovation in agriculture.”
In an effort to make that connection more visible, the faculty of the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources started an annual pitch competition to put students’ best business ideas on display — and pit them against one another in a friendly competition.
The Agriculture Innovation to Commercialization (AgI2C) Undergraduate Ideation Competition was born in 2016 as a public platform — similar to the TV show “Shark Tank” — where students could pitch their business concepts to judges and compete for a cash prize.
The first competition that year drew 20 teams who honed their business ideas during workshops. The final competition featured nine business concepts, some of which have since produced products for sale. The 2018 competition will take place on Feb. 27, with applications to compete due Nov. 1. The winning team of AgI2C will earn $2,500 to help make its business concept a reality.
“This undergraduate competition is a way to infuse entrepreneurship into all that we do,” said Cioaca, a business lecturer in the Institute of Applied Agriculture, a two-year program focused on vocational opportunities in agriculture. “The idea is to take a concept from idea all the way to production and profitability.”
Cioaca also appreciated that students in the two-year IAA programs could compete with students seeking four-year degrees in agriculture in the contest. A team of IAA students took their tea-growing idea as far as the finals of the first competition and have since begun producing organic, campus-grown herbal teas at the local food co-op for sale under the label Terrapin Tea.
“This was a way to monetize what they’re learning in greenhouse production, ag entrepreneurship and plant science (classes) — to take it from paper and make some money in the process,” Cioaca said.
The competition’s winning team from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources focused on drying out algae being removed from Chesapeake Bay tributaries and turning what would have been waste into clean-burning fire logs. In second place was a team of seniors focused on building siding materials for homes that could change color with the seasons, getting lighter in the summer and darker in the winter, to reduce utility bills.
Cioaca said she’d like to see 25-30 teams apply for the upcoming competition, a number that would likely be whittled down to about 10 for the finals. And, if $2,500 isn’t enough incentive to explore whether a business idea has legs, she hopes a larger competition for which students will add incentive.
The Mid-Atlantic Farm Credit hosts an annual AgPitch competition in Maryland each year — with a $7,500 investment and in-kind contributions available to the winner. Cioaca hopes more students, emboldened by the campus competition, will feel ready to apply for that contest, the deadline for which is also Nov. 1.
“We always want the activities we do to be hands-on and realistic, not just training for the sake of training, so graduating students to that competition is one of our goals,” she said.
In Maryland, Cioaca says the roots of innovation necessarily run even deeper. Most students that graduate from the university’s agriculture programs head back to small, family-run farms — with the average farm in the state measuring 165 acres — or launch out on their own. Students who are able to think practically about how to add value to those operations — or create new ones – are more likely to succeed in a field that’s always changing.