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Tech entrepreneurs of the future to create, pitch ideas

Brian Hartz

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A Teen Business Challenge volunteer demonstrates one of the VR headsets received from IMMERTEC for this year’s participants.

For the eighth consecutive year, Tampa IT company ConnectWise has sponsored the Teen Business Challenge, a weekend-long competition that provides underprivileged high school students the chance to jumpstart their careers in the tech sector.

Twenty participants divided up into five teams will be issued a laptop computer and virtual reality headset that they can use to brainstorm, create and then pitch a business software application that utilizes VR technology. The competition starts tonight and concludes on Sunday with a pitch session to a panel of volunteers playing the role of angel investors. Members of the winning team will receive a Microsoft Surface tablet.

But this year, there’s a twist. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Teen Business Challenge — which is also sponsored by Citi and IMMERTEC, a Tampa-based virtual-reality startup that’s providing the VR headsets — is being held virtually.

Computer Mentors Executive Director Ralph Smith, right, presents a Panasonic Toughbook and a backpack provided by Citi to Teen Business Challenge participants.

Using an online conferencing platform called Remo, participants will be able to meet in dedicated spaces with their team members and then move to different virtual floors and venues for educational sessions with volunteers. Kathy Smith, ConnectWise’s philanthropic and leadership advisor, said 60 ConnectWise employees have volunteered to help with the event. “Our colleagues love to get involved,” she told the Catalyst. The firm’s volunteers will act as team coaches, subject matter experts and judges at the pitch session on Sunday.

“It shows the importance of helping these underprivileged kids and the community, giving them the opportunity to grow just like any other child,” Smith said. “That’s really important to ConnectWise.”

The Teen Business Challenge is one of several programs offered by Computer Mentors, a Tampa nonprofit that aims to narrow the technology divide and provide opportunities for underserved Tampa Bay youth to gain skills and experience that can help them improve their future career prospects. Santo Cannone, Computer Mentors’ board chairman, likened the event to Startup Week but for teenagers.

“Starting tonight, the teams will go through an ideation process where they come up with an idea for a product, and then tomorrow they’ll do some market assessment, market sizing, and they’ll put together a go-to-market plan,” he said. “And then on Sunday they’ll build a minimally viable product and present their big idea at the end of the competition.”

The event has been growing in popularity, Cannone said, so Computer Mentors has developed an application process to narrow down the field of potential competitors.

“There’s two questions they need to answer: what’s their view of the impact of technology on society, and what’s their interest in technology,” he said. “And then we also ask them to shoot a short video introducing themselves to us and talk a little bit about why they want to compete.”

Forty-five teenagers applied to be part of the competition this year, Cannone added. “We have a judging rubric we go through that allows us to objectively figure out which of the 20 would be the most suited for the program.”

Competitors will be treated to a presentation by IMMERTEC founder Erik Maltais, who, Cannone said, will give them an overview of “how he conceived of Ameritech and then what ideas they discarded along the way before they settled on the platform they have.” IMMERTEC specializes in VR training for medical professionals, and has been one of the most talked-about tech firms to emerge from Tampa Bay’s startup scene.

“IMMERTEC is in the medical technology field,” Cannone said, “so I would think that would probably influence our teams to think along those lines, but that’s not what we’re limiting them to.”

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