By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
As if ordained by Santa Claus, the first December version of the Canyon Challenge turned into a Christmas story.
Grand Canyon University’s biggest entrepreneurial competition was expanded to twice a year for the 2019-20 academic calendar, and Santa Calls emerged as the winner of the $3,000 first-place check thanks to an innovative business model that wowed the judges.
The idea is simple: Rather than force parents to go to a mall, wait in a long line with an impatient child and, if they want a photo, fork over a lot of money, Santa can come right to their cellphone for a personal conversation in the child’s own home.
All three judges thought it was a holly, jolly concept. It was a clear consensus that they believe in Santa Calls.
“We thought it was an idea that was so obvious to be disruptive, and no one had thought of it – well, I don’t know if no one had thought of it, but we hadn’t,” said Colangelo College of Business (CCOB) instructor Paul Waterman, who picked the three prize-winners along with Sharon Hwang, Chief Operating Officer of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council and Connor Hubach of Hool Coury Law.
“It shows the brilliance of people from a different generation who are looking at the world with fresh eyes – pretty easy to scale, and it would be pretty easy to expand past Santa Claus.”
GCU senior Eli Miller, who is developing Santa Calls in conjunction with his brother Gregory, a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame, was awarded the $3,000 for first place.
Mode, a social-media platform designed to combat depression issues that are increasing in society and connected with the negative experiences with social-media, was designated by the judges as the most polished presentation and most exciting business model and received $1,500 for a second-place finish, and The Sidekicks, an application that seeks to prevent sexual assault on college campuses, took third, worth $500.
All of the $5,000 in prize money was donated by Hool Coury Law.
What excites Miller the most about Santa Calls is what it could do for children growing up in poverty or confined to a hospital bed.
“Something as small as Santa for a child in a hospital can make them smile for that two-minute call and then eventually lead to them getting out of the hospital,” he said. “Just that moment of sheer happiness, to believe in something, can spark a sense of creativity and design and belief in the rest of their life.”
The finance and economics major has put aside his plans to become a hedge fund manager – he even teaches a club class for trading stocks – to work on Santa Calls full-time. He plans to first solidify the Santa concept, then make it a year-round business by expanding to the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, etc.
“The thing about this company is that it’s not even a hard sell once you realize the impact it can have and talk through the numbers and how many children can be affected. Everyone I’ve talked to loves the idea.”
Count Tim Kelley, CCOB’s Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship and Economics and the Canyon Challenge emcee, in that group.
“What I find fascinating is his passion,” Kelley said. “He’s identified this odd little niche that nobody really assumed needed some efficiencies, but, lo and behold, they’re still operating like it’s 1900. There’s some technology that can make it more efficient.”
Kelley also was pleased with the feel of having the first Canyon Challenge in GCU’s new Innovation Center, recently renamed Canyon Ventures – and having it in December.
“I love being in this facility,” he said. “By having it now, it forces the students to put themselves that much further ahead of the game rather than waiting for the competition next year. The fact that they ran the gauntlet, made the presentations, thought about it enough, solidified the business model enough to make it public, it really lights a fire under them.”
Said Dr. Randy Gibb, the CCOB dean, “This was a tremendous event because it is the first of many that link and highlight the collaboration between Robert Vera leading Canyon Ventures and Tim’s work with IDEA Club and the Canyon Challenge. Soon we could have a student venture move through the entire GCU process: IDEA Club to Canyon Challenge, into Canyon Ventures, and acquire funding via Canyon Angels, then move into a West Valley facility and hire from the community.”
Waterman, who could pass for a slim Santa thanks to his bushy beard, laughed when he was asked whether introducing a Christmas-oriented business such as Santa Calls at this time of year made the idea that much more attractive.
“If it were 128 degrees outside, maybe we would not have been so easily swayed,” he said. “Timing is everything.”
And you’d better watch out … Santa Calls may very well be coming to town one of these days.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].
GCU Today: O'Rea does the job, wins Canyon Challenge
GCU Today: Bowtie business fashions Canyon Challenge win