Photos by Ralph Freso / Slideshow
The Canyon Challenge past met the Canyon Challenge present on Friday and saw that the future looks bright.
Up on the stage afterward at the Canyon Ventures Center was 2018 winner Andrea Northup, one of the judges this time, talking to Hunter Khan, who won the latest gathering of the semiannual Grand Canyon University entrepreneurial competition.
The three-person committee, which included Kyle Brown of event sponsor Trinity Capital and Piper Hunkins of Guardian Storage, awarded the $2,500 first prize to Sprinkler Guard, an anti-tampering device Khan is marketing.
“I’m continually amazed and impressed by the talent that GCU has and the students’ passion to change business – to partner with nonprofits and other folks in society,” Northup said. “That’s what conscious capitalism is all about. It’s something I feel blessed to have been a part of.”
Sprinkler Guard, which Khan has based in his suburban Denver home, was the committee’s consensus choice over Jack’s Detail Garage (Luke Bates, Jackson Godwin and Anthony Ybarra), which earned $1,500 for second place, and third-place finisher ArtIsOn (Keegan Barry, $1,000).
Jack’s is a two-pronged venture focused on offering car-cleaning products and services. Barry has developed a Comfort Pad for fellow digital designers in the hope of making their hands-on work more ergonomic.
The other finalists were Ollie (Harper Maselli, Chase Freeburg), which appeals to sentimentality by carving pieces of broken but maybe still beloved skateboards and turning them into rings that riders can wear on their fingers, and Ellavate (Lela Lewis), which bridges the gap between business wear and lounge wear for women.
Khan’s Sprinkler Guard presentation won for a simple reason, in Northup’s view:
“He really was able to demonstrate the ability to identify a need – a specific need, at that – and differentiate himself from competitors in the market. The other aspect is scalability. While he was trying to solve the problem with water devices in Colorado, we saw it as something that can expand into other states, especially here in Phoenix.”
She also noted that he has a consistent customer base and already has surveyed people about whether they would welcome the new gadget – and has received positive responses.
And Northup especially lauded Khan’s poised pitch, which demonstrated his ability to “understand a complex sprinkler system and provide an explanation in less than five minutes with your solution to the problem. That is really hard to do.”
Yet even though he’s only 20, Khan already is making entrepreneurship look easy. Sprinkler Guard isn’t just in revenue; it’s in six-figure revenue.
“I think they all were realistic, but his was the most practical,” said Tim Kelley, who manages entrepreneurship for the Colangelo College of Business. “He’s such a strong entrepreneur in his own right. It’s so rare for a student to already have 20-plus employees and $250,000 a year in revenue. This is just a nice little add-on to it.
“He’s ripping right through school, checking the boxes while he’s out there doing life and building businesses.”
Indeed, Khan talks so authoritatively about his company, he sounds at least 20 years older. Is he ever told that?
“Yes. Every day,” he said. “Every day someone tells me that I’m way too old to still be in school.”
He won’t be in school much longer. Though he transferred to GCU earlier this year and is in only his second year of college, he is on course to graduate early, in April 2024.
Khan started out mowing lawns at age 13 because he wanted a new iPhone every year. Then he wanted an Apple Watch, so he took on more customers.
“That morphed into the company we are now,” he said.
The entrepreneurship major’s business is built largely on caring for the lawns of homeowners who live out of state, but that isn’t his only venture. He also is trying to get two other ventures off the ground: a real estate company that buys off-market homes and sells them to house flippers, and a private equity firm.
He got the Sprinkler Guard idea two years ago when he saw what happens when a system gets turned off and the homeowner isn’t there to keep tabs on it. He went to clients and asked a simple question: Would you buy this? That had a direct effect on his Canyon Challenge pitch.
“Having to explain it to over a hundred people helped me prepare for this,” he said. “I had to explain it to visual learners.”
Khan said he further was aided when his engineer, Hunter Carlson, finished the 3D renderings for the product the day before the competition. They were classmates at Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.
“It’s the two Hunters, ironically,” Khan said.
He was turned on to GCU by Jonathan Beukelman, a UBS financial advisor and family friend: “He took me under his wing as if I was his intern and helped me connect with a lot of people. He said to look at GCU because Charles Schwab has put so much money in it.”
Then he visited GCU around Thanksgiving week last year and thought to himself, “Man, this place is awesome. Very innovative. Very forward-thinking.”
That was evident in the pitches Friday. The student businesses have gone far beyond something that’s just made for the campus; they’re thinking globally.
An on-campus experience that further develops their skills is the Innovation, Development and Entrepreneurship Association (IDEA) Club. Students practice their pitches at the club’s weekly Shark Tank meetings.
“When we have more people coming to IDEA Club and sharing ideas, that’s where it really gets interesting,” said Robert Vera, the Canyon Ventures director. “That creates a lot of competition, and now you get better ideas and better companies in that competition.
“The IDEA Club is really important because that’s what grows the competition. That’s what makes these pitches great.”
The IDEA Club president, Elijah Borja (another Valor Christian grad), gave a passionate talk before the winners were announced about “building a family of entrepreneurs who will change the world.”
“Dreams are not realistic,” he said.
What is realistic is GCU’s involvement in the community, which Northup sees regularly in her role as Faith Relations Manager for Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona.
“To see that GCU still has its purpose and heart at the core is encouraging,” she said. “Even though it has been able to grow at great capacity, it’s something that has not been lost in translation.
“We’re able to see that here today with the students who pitched. We see that with the students who come out to volunteer for Habitat. We see that with the staff. It’s just a light to the community and is a reason why a lot of students are attracted to come to GCU.”
And then start their own bright future.
Contact Rick Vacek, Senior Manager for Internal Communications, at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].