Kewaunee graduate, St. Norbert student wins college ‘Shark Tank’ style pitch contest
DE PERE – If Kewaunee High School graduate Olivia Smidel ever ends up on the ABC-TV reality show "Shark Tank," she'll have the experience of competing in contests similar to it — and winning.
Smidel, now a junior at St. Norbert College, won first place in The Pitch 2020, the fourth-annual collegiate business pitch competition held recently in Oshkosh by Fox Connection, a consortium of six colleges and universities in Northeast Wisconsin dedicated to encouraging and enhancing entrepreneurship.
The competition's format is much like that seen on "Shark Tank." Contestants come up with an innovative product idea they think will be marketable and present their idea to a panel of judges with business and entrepreneurial experience.
To win, Smidel had to have a better idea and make a better pitch than nine other students from St. Norbert, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, UW-Oshkosh, Lawrence University and Fox Valley Technical College (both in Appleton), and Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac.
"I was definitely surprised," Smidel said about her win. "All of the other pitches were really well done. Definitely surprised and happy. It's like a moment when you realize this is a product other people believe in, a product people want to work on and develop one day."
Smidel earned more than just a plaque for winning the contest, too. There's also a $25,000 prize: $10,000 cash and $15,000 worth of in-kind prizes wherein Smidel will meet with professionals on topics which "… includes consulting, learning how to better craft a pitch, what it takes to be an entrepreneur," she said.
The product the St. Norbert double-major — communication and media studies, and integrative studies — pitched to the judges is one that, if developed, would be of interest throughout Kewaunee County and much of Wisconsin.
Smidel calls it Eco-Cover, and it's an organic, biodegradable, edible, soybean-based cover for in-ground bunker silos.
Smidel grew up on a dairy farm operated by her family, and she and her father, Jim, discussed the problems inherent in the current method of covering bunker silos — lots of plastic sheeting and old tires. Besides potential environmental issues, the repeated uncovering and re-covering to get at, then protect the material in the bunkers is very labor-intensive.
"It's a lot of hands-on work," Smidel said. "Thousands of pounds of plastic, hundreds of hours of labor. Every Saturday, you go up on top of the silos and take off plastic and move the tires around. You want to keep the silos covered as much as possible, so you're taking off maybe a foot of plastic and moving the tires back into place after."
She said her father tried a couple of materials for organic covers, including a sugar-based cover and growing grass over the the top of a cover. Research led Smidel to the concept of a soybean-based, spray-on cover. Soybean spray is finding increasing use in the insulation business.
Smidel developed her idea and her pitch in a class taught by Joy Pahl, an associate professor of business administration at St. Norbert.
"I was in an entrepreneurship class, and the pitch was part of the class," Smidel said. "It's where we learned what to do when starting a business, learned about crafting a pitch."
To make it to The Pitch, Smidel had to compete in a "Shark Attack" competition among St. Norbert students in which the top two qualified for the intercollegiate event. The pitch she made at The Pitch added a few slides and a little more information than she used for "Shark Attack."
"I just made sure I explained everything on what they wanted to know about the business," Smidel said about The Pitch. "There were a couple of questions after — did I think about using a subscription-based service, was there a prototype, would farmers be receptive? But I never thought I didn't have the answers."
Smidel's Eco-Cover is now in what she said is a research and development stage. She said Pahl helped her connect with an insulation company to take a closer look at the idea and determine the best way to make it happen, as well as the costs involved.
"I'm hoping to make more connections with people in the industry, in chemistry," Smidel said, "and begin development of a prototype."
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected].
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This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Kewaunee graduate, St. Norbert student wins college 'Shark Tank' style pitch contest