UConn’s Innovation Quest Turns Students into Entrepreneurs

CEO Amelia Martin recalls being asked: ‘Do you have what it takes?’

A woman in business attire makes a presentation to a group with a large video screen behind her.

Amelia Martin pitching at the CCEI Summer Fellowship Finale (Defining Studios)

Just a year ago, Amelia Martin ’23 (CAHNR) was an undergraduate student with a great idea for creating an eco-friendly surfboard, but little idea how to bring it to the marketplace.

Today she is an entrepreneur and the owner of Mud Rat, a company creating organic surfboard cores from the mycelium of mushrooms. The material can replace Styrofoam, which produces toxic dust, and takes hundreds of years to decompose.

Mud Rat was one of the winners in last year’s UConn Innovation Quest (iQ) entrepreneurship competition, and the business knowledge Martin gained, coupled with introductions to business advisors, helped launch her company.

Her product is already drawing the attention of big brands in the sports industry, and she is optimistic about the future.

“Before I enrolled in iQ, I had no knowledge of how to run a business or how to get money for my business,’’ Martin says. “Aside from the knowledge I gained in how to be a successful CEO, iQ gave me a network of mentors and other business owners that I still talk to regularly and get advice and support from.’’

She distinctly remembers being asked, ‘Do you have what it takes?’ to become an entrepreneur. She wrote it on the cover of a notebook and looks at it periodically when she needs motivation.

“IQ taught me how to take criticism and persevere when things get difficult, and always keep going. It gave me the backbone and perspective I needed to come as far as I have, and I am so grateful to have gotten to participate in it,’’ she says.

Kickoff Workshop is Feb. 7; Entrepreneurs Vie for $30,000 in Prize Money

Since its inception 13 years ago, UConn Innovation Quest has helped participants create dozens of innovative, successful and profitable companies. Their focus has been on everything from medical technology to athletic-training devices, from consumer goods to video games that address mental health challenges.

UConn’s 2024 Innovation Quest competition will begin with a kick-off workshop on Wednesday, Feb. 7. Although the program is a part of the School of Business’ Boucher Management & Entrepreneurship Department, all UConn undergraduate and graduate students are welcome to participate. The program meets virtually. Pre-registration is available at http://innovationquest.uconn.edu

After completing four workshops in February and March, participants can submit a formal application with their business idea. A panel of judges will select the most promising enterprises in April. Those teams will compete for $30,000 in startup funds and a chance to attend the university’s Summer InQbator, a next-step entrepreneurship bootcamp.

The 2024 iQ program will be led by Kevin Gardiner ’06 MBA, an adjunct professor in both the School of Business and College of Engineering. Gardiner has served as an iQ mentor for several years and has held management and senior management positions at both startups and long-established companies, including Welcome Commerce, Macy’s, and Oracle.

“I would encourage students to apply even if they don’t think they are ready to start a business or if they are concerned that their idea still needs some work,’’ Gardiner says.  “Even if they don’t win the top prize, they’ll learn so much about starting a business and about themselves, and they’ll have a lot of fun doing it.’’

“We have so many talented mentors in every discipline, from intellectual property to go-to-market strategy to product development,’’ he says. “If young entrepreneurs want feedback, they will find out quickly if their idea has ‘legs’ and whether they have the passion to pursue their business.’’

It Takes More than A Good Idea and a Million Bucks

One of the greatest advantages of the iQ competition is that it welcomes all ideas—whether software or medical devices, engineering technology or a much-needed consumer product, he says.

“What I want to see is passion in the presenter,’’ he says. “I love that every year we see great ideas across the gambit.’’

Based on his business experience, Gardiner says that entrepreneurs need to be able to build a strong team to support them, and to inspire great people to want to work for them.

“Most people think that a good idea and million bucks will make a company soar, but that’s only a piece of the puzzle,’’ he says. “I would bet on an A-Team with a B-Idea, over a B-Team with an A-Idea every time.”

Gardiner is taking the helm of the popular program as two of its founders step back from leadership roles. Alumnus Keith Fox ’80, a former senior executive at Apple and Cisco, brought the program to UConn, and entrepreneurship professor Rich Dino who educated, nurtured, and encouraged the students. Both men will remain engaged with the program. Their work has been credited for ushering in a deep commitment to entrepreneurship at the University, and contributed to creation of new entrepreneurship programs and institutes.

“The iQ program came to UConn through the initiative and generosity of alumnus Keith Fox. It has flourished through the hard work of Professor Rich Dino and the amazing group of mentors and judges he has cultivated,’’ says David Souder, senior associate dean at the School of Business. “Now it will continue to be an opportunity for hands-on learning that energizes students through the leadership of Kevin Gardiner, who has been part of that mentoring group for years.’’

“We celebrate the successful companies that have grown out of iQ, but as educators, we are just as proud of how the program gives a wide range of students, across every school in the university, a chance to try out their entrepreneurial spirit and learn more about the entrepreneurial journey,” Souder says.