VCU launches ‘Innovation Challenges’ competition to solve problems facing education, energy and health

The monthlong competition organized by the da Vinci Center offers teams of VCU students a chance at $10,000 in prizes and services.

A student demonstrates an invention to faculty advisers and others.
At the da Vinci Center, then-VCU engineering student Hilton Bennett pitches an indoor mountain climbing device he designed.

By Brian McNeill
University Public Affairs

How can technology improve outcomes in K-12 and higher education? What is the future of electric vehicle charging in Virginia? And how can emerging technologies — such as the Internet of Things, virtual and augmented reality, blockchain, cryptocurrency and artificial intelligence — improve the health of the Richmond community and beyond?

Over the next month, teams of students at Virginia Commonwealth University will compete to provide answers to these questions as part of a new competition, VCU Innovation Challenges 2018, with a chance at $10,000 in prizes and services.

Each of the three challenge areas were nominated by Richmond-area businesses and organizations, including Cherry Bekaert, Dominion Energy, New Economy Thinker Community-Virginia Chapter, the MacLaurin Group and VCU Health.

“There has never been a time like now — with the rapid acceleration of innovation — making our communities where we learn, live and work even better and more connected,” said Emil Avram, vice president-Innovation for Dominion Energy, which proposed the electric vehicle charging challenge. “This exciting sprint event could provide the world another big breakthrough."

The competition is organized by the da Vinci Center, a collaboration of VCU’s schools of the Arts and Business and colleges of Engineering and Humanities and Sciences that advances innovation and entrepreneurship through cross-disciplinary collaboration.

“This is about allowing talented students at VCU to actively participate in solving real-world challenges facing our community partners and companies in the greater Richmond region,” said Garret Westlake, Ph.D., executive director of the da Vinci Center.

At the end of the four-week competition, the teams will present their work before VCU faculty, staff and industry experts. Top entries in each category will win cash prizes and will be offered acceptance to the 2019 VCU Pre-Accelerator Program, also known as Pre-X, that helps student innovators and entrepreneurs get their startups off the ground.

“This isn’t a competition in the way that we might typically think of a competition, where you would keep your ideas separate because you don't want anybody to steal them,” Westlake said. “This is meant to be a really collaborative effort to generate the best ideas possible. And so we expect [team] gatherings to be more like design jams, with a lot of open communication and collaboration where someone will throw out, ‘Well, what about this?’ And other people will riff off that idea en route to submitting solutions.”

Throughout the month, the da Vinci Center will host a number of pop-up events aimed at bringing students in the health sciences and student innovators on the Monroe Park Campus together and encouraging collaboration. Events will take place on both campuses, including at the new Gladding Residence Center and at the School of Pharmacy, as well as in downtown Richmond.

The competition is open to any VCU student. Among those expected to take part will be students enrolled in new living-learning communities focused on entrepreneurship and design.

Innovation Challenges will not only enable students to work on pressing issues facing the community, Westlake said. The competition is also fitting into a continuum of ways in which VCU and the da Vinci Center support student innovators and entrepreneurs.

“We’re creating a robust pipeline,” he said. “The new Innovation Challenges program in the fall will feed the Pre-Accelerator Program in the spring and the Pre-Accelerator Program in the spring is now going to feed the Lighthouse U summer accelerator cohort. We’re building a comprehensive and year-round engagement platform for students unlike any other in the country.”