Cisco Innovation Challenge lets entrepreneurs rise and shine

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Every year when Naomi Phillips travels to the Caribbean with her husband, they use her homemade sunscreen. And every year, her husband says, “You need to sell this stuff!”

Phillips is a student in the business program at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix. She’s also an entrepreneur, although she didn’t always see herself that way.

“I considered myself a small-business owner, since I used to own a nightclub with my husband in Cincinnati,” Phillips said. But it took participating in the Cisco Innovation Challenge for Phillips to start calling herself an entrepreneur.

The Cisco Innovation Challenge is a live pitch competition where students can win seed funding to start, grow or launch their ventures. It can also be considered the culminating event for students in the Poder program, a five-week entrepreneurship program offered at no cost to Maricopa Community College students by Arizona State University Entrepreneurship + Innovation, supported by grant funding from the Cisco corporate advised fund at Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The program allows students to develop a business concept and encourages them to consider how technology allows them to maximize their positive impact on the world. Phillips heard about the program at her school and was selected to participate last year, and again this semester.

Phillips’ idea is to create a mobile app for patients who are prescribed heliotherapy, or the use of natural sunlight to treat medical ailments. The app would monitor a user’s sun exposure and remind them to apply her sunscreen. The proprietary sunscreen blend she developed is all-natural, carcinogen- and metal-free, and just as effective as traditional types without all the synthetic chemicals, she said.

Before going through the Poder program, Phillips always called her idea a dream. By the time she was selected as one of five individuals to pitch their ventures to a panel of judges in December 2016, she was already referring to her company as if it was up and running. Phillips ended up winning second place and $3,000 in seed money to produce and test more of her product.

The Cisco Innovation Challenge is open to Maricopa Community College students from all majors and fields of study. The competition allows selected participants to pitch their ideas for new Internet of Things solutions and technologies. For example, ideas might focus on connecting more devices and everyday objects to the internet to address issues in health care, education, energy, manufacturing or other industries.

“It has been a privilege to watch students conceptualize and pitch their ideas,” said Elizabeth Cantú, a program manager in Entrepreneurship + Innovation at ASU.  “It has been exciting to be part of a program where Maricopa Community College students apply their passions and talents to innovatively address issues in our community.”

The Poder program was born from a partnership among ASU, Maricopa Community Colleges and Cisco Systems, organizations that all share an interest in empowering the next generation of global problem solvers.

“The Cisco Innovation Challenge has demonstrated that students can come up with incredible ideas when they have a platform to share them,” said Ji Mi Choi, associate vice president of Entrepreneurship + Innovation. “ASU sees the value in entrepreneurship and is committed to providing access to programs like this one, not just to ASU students, faculty and staff, but to the wider community as well.” 

The next cohort of Maricopa Community College students will pitch their ideas at the Cisco Innovation Challenge on May 2. The free event is open to the public and will include eight live pitches, with first-, second- and third-place winners selected by a pool of local judges and audience votes. The first-place winner will be awarded $5,000 to launch or grow his or her idea; second place will receive $3,000 and third place $2,000.

Cisco Innovation Challenge

When: 6-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 2.

Where: A.E. England Building, 424 N. Central Ave., Phoenix.

Cost: Free.

Details: RSVP here.