Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
The look on Katalina Inzunza’s face said it all. The president of the Psychology Club at Grand Canyon University had just won the fifth annual Canyon Challenge entrepreneurial competition Wednesday night, and she didn’t know what to think — but she sure was psyched up.
Moments before, Inzunza and her business partner, Erick Roman, had literally dropped their jaws and bulged their eyes in unison when GCU President Brian Mueller paused for a second as he was announcing the winner of the judges’ deliberations. He mentioned the possibility of the new startup forming a partnership with the University, and she was sure he was going to say the name of one of the other four finalists.
But then, finally, he said it: Raffle Boss, designed to help raffles become more profitable and accessible, had won the $7,000 first prize.
“We just turned to each other, and it was crazy,” she said.
Not crazy at all, said Mueller, who was joined on the judging panel by Brad Jannenga, cofounder of WebPT and voted one of the Top Entrepreneurs in Arizona by The Arizona Republic; Sheldon Harris, former Coldstone Creamery president and now a partner with CEO Coaching International; Dr. Lori Soukup, a longtime entrepreneur in the hospitality business; and Phoenix vice mayor and District 5 councilman Daniel Valenzuela.
“I think it was the most obvious addressable market and would fill an immediate need, especially for philanthropic organizations or nonprofits,” Mueller said. “When raffles are for nonprofits, people want to get involved. If they win, that’s great, but if they don’t win, they’re fine with that because they’re making a contribution.
“I think our Canyon Christian Schools Consortium would have a way to get in the raffle business in a much bigger way. I think our network could really help them.”
A lot of fledgling businesses got helped Wednesday night — by the judges, by the crowd of 1,000 at GCU Arena and by people watching the proceedings online.
TailSpace, which seeks to put customizable digital advertising boards on the backs of trucks, was voted second by the judges and received $2,000, and Near, a location-based application designed to help people connect with nearby users, got the $1,000 third prize.
But the audience also got its say in an online vote, and it had a much different opinion. Own Wood, which would put wooden emblems, such as the geographical shape of a state, on hats and other gear, was the winner, earning $2,500, and Near’s second-place finish in that contest was worth $1,500.
There also was a $1,000 award for the best lobby presentation, and that vote went to Narratus, a gaming-adventure application in which users can “play” a story.
So that means that all five finalists walked away with much needed cash to fund their ideas. And that doesn’t even include Storage Together, which didn’t make the final five in the Canyon Challenge but was the best GCU finisher in the recent Arizona Collegiate Venture Competition (ACVC) and won $3,500.
“I think it’s a great representation of all the different ideas, and everybody’s got some money at the end of the day,” said Tim Kelley, assistant professor for entrepreneurship and economics at GCU and the master of ceremonies Wednesday night.
Raffle Boss didn’t participate in the ACVC, “so to have them pitch right out of the gate and nail it is really impressive. I think they were able to show the judges that they had identified a clear problem and that they have a solution for it, and they inspired the judges to back them,” Kelley said.
What also made Kelley happy was that the quality and sophistication of both the entries and the presentations was so outstanding. Each 10-minute pitch began with a professional-looking video produced by students.
“It’s beginning to leverage all the different pieces we have on campus, and I think it’s exciting,” he said.
Dr. Randy Gibb, dean of the Colangelo College of Business, also was excited about the fact that Inzunza is a psychology major, one year after one of the five finalists was a nursing student. The IDEA Club, which manages the competition, is available to all students, not just business majors, and when the Lope Lab opens in the fall there will be yet another avenue for new product development.
“Any student with an idea to solve a problem is welcome,” Gibb said. “That is the cross-campus collaboration and inclusiveness of Lope entrepreneurism.”
That sense of community extended to the makeup of the crowd Wednesday, which included members of 2015 Canyon Challenge finalists Joblyt and Prayer Packages, movers and shakers in the CCOB entrepreneurial push such as Jon Ruybalid and Paul Waterman, members of the CCOB advisory board, prominent people from the community, and, maybe most important, other students watching their peers profit from their ideas.
“This will spur more ideas,” Gibb said. “Students are sitting up there thinking, ‘That should be me.’”
But this time it was people like Inzunza and Roman, former classmates at Trevor G. Browne High School in Phoenix. Roman, who now attends St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, was having difficulty trying to raffle off some San Antonio Spurs tickets for a fraternity fundraiser late last year when he got the Raffle Boss idea. He was so excited about it, he called Inzunza in the middle of the night.
“He said, ‘Bear with me. I’m going to send you an email with these ramblings,’” she recalled. “They were ramblings, but it made sense. I thought it was something we could develop.”
So they began working on it in earnest in December. That’s how fast these things can happen — four months later, they have $7,000 in seed money from the Canyon Challenge and potentially could get a lot more.
“As we walked off the stage, I had a lot of people approach me and give me business cards — Seed Spot (the prominent Phoenix business incubator) and investment companies that want to schedule meetings with us to develop our idea or maybe potentially give us more capital to start,” she said.
“Obviously, we have some incentive to look for them now that we know that people actually value the idea. They’ll see that these esteemed judges voted for it and we won this contest, so it might give them an incentive to invest in us.”
Inzunza is set to graduate from GCU next week and hopes to go on to get a master’s in professional counseling. Roman is still a sophomore at St. Mary’s, where he majors in finance and risk management. Their plate suddenly got a little more filled up, but they’ll happily dig in.
“I still cannot believe it,” Roman said.
And they aren’t the only ones who could be getting even more help from GCU. Mueller said he scheduled a meeting Thursday with the Own Wood guys, Mack Olsen and Marcus Harvey, to talk about personally investing in their company.
“I think they’ve got a good idea and they understand what they’re doing,” he said.
The spirit of entrepreneurship just keeps flowing and growing at GCU, and, like a good raffle, a lot of people are benefiting. It’s the winning ticket.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected]