No lid on creativity for Canyon Challenge finalists

April 04, 2016 / by / 0 Comment

By Peter Corbett
GCU News Bureau

Grand Canyon University entrepreneurs never know when inspiration will strike.

For Riley Robertson, it came when he and his friends were riding in a car on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Malik Rivers was inspired on a cross-country road trip while driving behind truckers in Texas.

Mack Olsen got an idea for a company he calls “Own Wood” during winter break in Portland, Ore.

Creating a wood outline of Arizona or any other U.S. state and then putting it on a hat is the business plan of Own Wood, one of five Canyon Challenge finalists.

Creating a wood outline of Arizona or any other U.S. state and then putting it on a hat is the business plan of Own Wood, one of five Canyon Challenge finalists.

Robertson, Rivers and Olsen are among the five finalists in the university’s fifth annual Canyon Challenge, a competition among entrepreneurs who are creating their own companies.

The finalists will present their business concepts before a panel of judges at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 13, in GCU Arena. The five judges, including  GCU President Brian Mueller and Phoenix City Councilman Daniel Valenzuela, will award more than $15,000 to the winners. The event drew almost 1,000 people last year.

The winning company will be awarded $7,000, the runner-up will receive $2,000 and third place is worth $1,000. Students also will vote on a winner for a separate prize.

“I think we’ve got some great companies,” said Tim Kelley, assistant professor of entrepreneurship and economics in the Colangelo College of Business.“These are some of the best we’ve ever had in the Canyon Challenge.”

The top five companies selected from 11 finalists in the competition are Narratus, Raffle Boss, Own Wood, TailSpace and Near.

A new way to connect

Near is the brainchild of Robertson and Jared LeMay, both GCU sophomores from Boise, Idaho. They have developed a location-based application for Instagram and Twitter that allows nearby users to connect if they are as close as 200 feet or as far away as a mile.

Robertson said they got the idea while driving on Hollywood Boulevard with friends and yelling their Twitter handles out the window to try to connect with other passing motorists and pedestrians.

“We decided there has to be a better way,” Robertson said.

The Near app would be useful at a business conference, in a new city or just moving about and wanting to make a friendly connection, he said in the company’s business plan.

“It’s a way to connect people with other people in a simple, effective way,” Robertson said.

Advertising on trucks

Rivers started thinking about TailSpace in December 2015 as he drove across Texas. In his hotel room that night, he said he stayed up for hours scribbling in his notebook and researching his idea of putting digital screens on the back doors of tractor-trailers as a platform for advertising.

The screens would be weatherized, and digital messages would be displayed based on a specific geographic location for targeted audiences, Rivers said, adding that it’s good for trucking companies because it creates an advertising platform that generates revenue to offset some of the operating costs for trucks.

The digital screens and ads are designed to meet highway safety regulations for static digital billboards. There are limits on brightness, and images must be on the screen for a minimum of six seconds, he said.

State pride on a hat

Olsen got his idea for Own Wood while visiting his home in suburban Portland, Ore. His company’s concept is to take locally sourced wood and use laser-cutting tools to create wafer-thin emblems shaped like Arizona or any other state. The emblems are sewed onto hats.

“We want to capitalize on state pride to create a cool brand for each state,” Olsen said.

Own Wood has experimented with dried cactus for an Arizona emblem, but it does not hold up well when sliced thin, he said.

Raffles and gaming

The other finalists, Narratus and Raffle Boss, also have tapped into their ingenuity to advance in the competition.

GCU senior Katalina Inzunza of Raffle Boss said it was December when she came up with the idea for operating fund-raising raffles online and using social media to widely expand the pool of raffle-ticket buyers.

She said her business partner, Erick Roman, a student at St. Mary’s College in San Antonio, was trying to do a fraternity fundraiser by selling raffle tickets to win good seats to a San Antonio Spurs game.

“It turned into a logistical nightmare,” Inzunza said.

That led them to develop Raffle Boss, which operates the raffle, tracks spending and picks the winner in random drawings.

Raffle Boss can reach so many more people, Inzunza said.

People have a social circle of 150 people, but their social media contacts are generally 400 to 600 people, she said.

Raffle Boss is a great tool for sororities, fraternities and other campus groups that are always doing fundraisers. Inzunza added.

The other finalist, Narratus, is a text-based mobile app that allows users to interact with a story that leads them on an adventure and an eventual outcome that will vary based on their choices.

Alex Von Reiche said the team hatched the idea in August 2015 and started developing Narratus about a month later. It is developing the gaming-adventure app hopes to have up to 10 stories available initially in a variety of genres, including science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction. Narratus also hopes to encourage its users to write their own stories for the app, and then other users can “play” that story.

It can take up to two hours to experience one of the adventure stories, Von Reiche said.

The team developing Narratus includes Von Reiche and fellow programmers Jacob Henning and Brandon Church. Samuel Herb is creating art for the app, and Gabe Kester is in charge of marketing.

Contact Peter Corbett at (602) 639-7588 or


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