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Northern Arizona University (NAU) professors have developed a clever solution to bring business expertise to their U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Collegiate Wind Competition (CWC) team: a “Shark Tank”-style pitch contest, designed to spur interest in both wind energy and the CWC.

Twelve student teams across the United States—including NAU—were selected to participate in the 2018 competition, which will be held May 8–10 at American Wind Energy Association’s WINDPOWER conference in Chicago, Illinois. Over the past semester, students and their advisors have worked to shape team structure, develop business models, and fine-tune the skills needed for their team to perform well in a competition that merges business, engineering, and other project-specific specializations. But building a competitive business model from scratch on a short time frame can be a challenge—so NAU decided to teach innovation with innovation.

NAU’s newest CWC faculty member, Denise Parris, an Assistant Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship, took a unique approach to solving an issue that has impacted previous NAU CWC teams. In coordination with Karin Wadsack, the team’s project director, and David Willy, a mechanical engineering faculty member, Parris found a way to prepare students to quickly prototype and develop turbine ideas.

“A challenge in the past that Karin and David had talked about was that teams were not prototyping enough ideas and testing them quickly,” Dr. Parris said. NAU’s CWC faculty wanted to develop a process to “select the students that were most interested and engaged,” hoping that doing so would get more ideas into the mix and encourage a more iterative process.

Parris spent the first four weeks of her New Venture Creation and Business Planning classes preparing students for an in-class wind competition concept pitch. During the classroom event, four teams would be selected to participate in a “Shark Tank”-style finale, where they would present their wind product in front of a panel of judges that included experienced wind industry partners.

Since students from Dr. Parris’ classes were already required to create a business plan during the course, the pitch contest gave them an opportunity to familiarize themselves with wind energy and the overall business plan development process. In the end, the students could continue with their pitched wind product throughout the course or choose a different product idea.

Students could also continue their work by joining the university’s CWC team. For Jordan Parker, one of four students who joined NAU’s CWC team while taking Parris’s class, the pitch taught her the importance of understanding the details of a project—not just the business aspects. Parker feels that this insight will be key to the NAU team’s success in Chicago. 

The judges playing “Shark Tank” roles in Parris’s class had “knowledge of the wind industry, so some of the questions they asked were geared toward engineering,” she said. When they asked about the battery or turbine size, “suddenly we were stumped because we had spent the past four weeks focusing on the business side of the project. That was what made me realize that moving forward, we need to collaborate even more closely with the engineers and learn the technical side of turbines on top of the business model and the financials.”

By pioneering this early-semester pitch contest, NAU was able to bring together business students and engineers to work collaboratively better and earlier than in past competition years, and to bring much more innovation into the business concept selection. Through these efforts, NAU hopes they’ve found the perfect formula for CWC success.

Check out this NAU news article for more information about their “Shark Tank” event: FCB Students Compete in Collegiate Wind Competition Concept Pitc