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Pioneer Weekend promotes collaborative innovation

The winners of the 2019 Pioneer Weekend innovation competition. Photo by Scott Lew.

Last weekend, Grinnell College hosted Pioneer Weekend, an innovation competition for students that teaches entrepreneurship skills and provides experience in creating viable consumer products. The three-day competition, sponsored by the Wilson Center for Innovation and Leadership, was held from Friday Sept. 20 to Sunday Sept. 22 in the Joe Rosenfield ’25 Center on campus.

With the assistance of alumni mentors, teams of three to six students competing in the program develop start-up ideas and create product pitches, which they then turn into full presentations. 

Students compete for cash prizes: the first-place team netted $1,500, while second- and third-place teams won $700 and $300 respectively. Pioneer Weekend began in 2014 as a series of workshops, but the event has since evolved into a pitch competition, according to Wilson Center Program Coordinator Robert Ludwig.

The winning team pitched a camera that included technology to authenticate video as it was being filmed, in order to increase an audience’s confidence in the validity of the images they see. Philip Kiely ’20 came up with the idea after attending PennApps, a “hackathon” at the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked on a similar project.

Pioneer Weekend competitors give one-minute pitches for their product ideas on Friday night. While some groups enter the competition with set team members and a predetermined plan, other teams then organize themselves around these pitches. 

In fact, Kiely’s team—David Hafner ’23, Abigail Munsen ’22 and Clara Zioli Da Igreja ’23—met for the first time on Friday. This interest-based team organization helped them, as each member was interested in the product idea from a unique angle and brought a different set of skills.

“We happened to have a team with a very wide range of abilities, and not excessive overlap. We didn’t have two people working on the same thing. For any specific aspect, it was very disjointed, but in a good way,” Hafner said. “It was very much a collaboration between what we technically can do and what is needed, and how to get to the user that functionality in a cost-effective way.”

Competitors spend Saturday working on their ideas and meeting with alumni mentors, many of whom have entrepreneurial or tech backgrounds. 

Some mentors also serve as judges: for example, Andrés Chang ’05, a Cyber Risk Consultant with Deloitte, and Ajuna Kyaruzi ’17, a Site Reliability Engineer at Google, worked with students on Saturday before adjudicating presentations on Sunday. Friday’s keynote speaker was Kevin Allen, cofounder of EI Games and former advertising executive.

“We found the mentors to be completely awesome. Every single one of them was fantastic, and they were so helpful,” said Ashton Aveling ’22, whose team came in third place. “They had a lot of very specific and detailed advice to give us and it was very inspirational to hear what they had to say.”

On Sunday, teams gave longer presentations and received feedback about their products before a prize ceremony.

According to Ludwig, Pioneer Weekend provides a space for student entrepreneurs to experiment without real-world consequences.

“I hope, especially now in the four years they’re here at the college, that they take away the chance to fail,” he said. “Hopefully, they don’t see it as a failure. But if they do, they’re in a safer space to do it without repercussions, financial or beyond, as opposed, to the business world.”

The first-place team had fairly simple advice for future competitors: just try it out.

“Honestly, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. And it was a ton of fun,” Munsen said. “I definitely recommend it.”

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