SDSU engineers earn top prize at multi-campus entrepreneurship competition

The Chinyeh Hostler Social Venture Challenge awarded nearly $40,000 to support student startups in second year of event.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024
Three students in businesswear and sponsor Chinyeh Hostler posed with a novelty check for $15,000 from the Chinyeh Hostler Social Venture Challenge, dated April 15, 2024, and made out to "Agrospike."
SDSU engineering students took first place for their pitch at the Chinyeh Hostler Social Venture Challenge. From left, Emilia Ellegaard, Anna Burton, Chinyeh Hostler, and Aliza Siddiqui. (Photo: Kayla Bayers)

Nine teams from five Southern California universities pitched solutions to water-related problems for nearly $40,000 in prizes during the 2024 Chinyeh Hostler Social Venture Challenge, hosted by the San Diego State University Zahn Innovation Platform (ZIP) Launchpad. An SDSU team of three female engineers took home the grand prize of $15,000 as well as additional cash prizes in the March 15 event.

“The Social Venture Challenge is designed to inspire students to think of new and innovative ways to address some of the world’s most pressing social challenges,” said Chinyeh Hostler (‘78), an alumna of the Fowler College of Business accounting program.

“I have always been passionate about finding solutions that improve the human condition, and this event offers some of our brightest young minds the chance to turn their creative business and socially impacted ideas into viable resolutions,” Hostler said.

In the event’s second year, SDSU students competed against teams from San Diego Miramar College, CSU San Marcos, CSU Fullerton, and Point Loma Nazarene University.

“Expanding this competition to multiple institutions broadens students’ networks, shifts students’ perspectives on social impact, and strengthens connections among entrepreneurs across all of Southern California,” said Cathy Pucher, SDSU’s executive director of entrepreneurship initiatives and emcee for the event.

Each team had five minutes to pitch their early stage idea. Five judges from the greater entrepreneurship community rated each pitch on criteria, including the significance of the water-related problem, the feasibility and potential social impact of the team’s innovation, their planned business model and use of funds.

Top prize

Emilia Ellegaard, a first-year aerospace engineering major at SDSU, and Aliza Siddiqui pitched their company, Agrospike, as a means of improving irrigation efficiency on almond farms using a small, T-shaped device that easily installs into existing watering systems. Together with their teammate Anna Burton, the Agrospike team earned the first place prize and additional prizes for nearly $20,000 in total winnings.

Ellegaard invented the irrigation device in a high school class before coming to SDSU and was paired together with Siddiqui and Burton after applying to participate in the challenge through the ZIP Launchpad. Burton used what she had learned from previous participation in the ZIP Launchpad to help prepare the other two engineers for the pitch presentation.

The ZIP Launchpad teams’ coach, Shan Cureton (‘16, ‘18), was integral in helping the Agrospike team build up their confidence as women in STEM and female entrepreneurs, Burton said.

“We’ve developed so much throughout this month,” said Ellegaard.

The preparation paid off. Thirty minutes before their pitch, Ellegaard and Siddiqui added in a joke that helped them earn the best presentation and audience vote awards. One of the judges asked a question that Burton had already prepared them to answer during practice.

“This is life-changing money,” said Siddiqui. The team is in discussions about whether they will pursue further developing their company through the ZIP Launchpad.

Cultivating entrepreneurs

When presenting the award for second place, judge and SDSU alumnus Joshua Sommer (‘06) praised all the competitors for their ambition and dedication to devising thoughtful, evidence-based pitches in just a few weeks. “What you did today was truly admirable. Congrats for being brave enough to come up here.”

“The creativity and problem-solving from the student teams was impressive,” said Dan Moshavi, dean of the Fowler College of Business.

Student teams from CSU San Marcos and Miramar College earned second and third place prizes, as well as additional categories for innovation and social impact, but appreciated the opportunity to grow as entrepreneurs.

Second place and the award for most innovative solution went to CSU San Marcos students for their company Chloroboost, a fertilizer made of a proprietary blend of algae, fungi and cyanobacteria intended to increase water retention and reduce water evaporation. Presenter Kanav Aggarwal was inspired to develop this solution by the differences between soil fertility in two places he previously lived; during monsoons in India, seeds easily germinated whereas Kansas farmers’ crops struggled.

Aggarwal’s teammates and fellow CSU San Marcos students, Bella Bowman and Ashley Gamez collaborated on the marketing side of the business. Bowman said participating in the social venture challenge was a great learning experience, allowing her to better understand what goes into a business pitch.

Students from Miramar College won third place and the award for greatest social impact for their idea for an app, Hightide AI, which aims to use gamification to encourage more sustainable water usage.

Representing Hightide AI, Calvin Nguyen presented alongside Anh Pham, who had previously pitched his own company at San Diego Startup Week in October 2023.

Nguyen started his entrepreneurship journey watching Pham, so sharing the stage with him during the Chinyeh Hostler Social Venture Challenge was a “full-circle” moment.

From Pham’s perspective, it was his first time working with a team and working from just an idea. He appreciated learning how to pitch with someone else and make it appear seamless.

Pham was very grateful for the generosity from Chinyeh Hostler for supporting more than one cash prize for different strength areas.

“It was truly awesome to see people who are like-minded coming together, all working on the same problem,” Nguyen said.

Additional prizes were also given to ZIP Launchpad teams in three different stages of company development, following audience votes on one-minute pitches. Fowler College of Business students Cloudia Campbell won the early stage competition; Nessa Perea of Hele Green Solutions won the in-flight stage prize; It’s Personal, helmed by Drew and Luke Thomas, won the launch, or later stage, company pitch competition.

Categorized As