On a Saturday in Salt Lake City, the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, which manages the Utah Entrepreneur Challenge, announced the grand prize winners of the competition.
After they announced third and second place, the team of BYU students that came up with Thrive Smart Systems were sure they were going home with nothing.
“When we (showed) up that night for the announcements of the winners, they were handing out all different awards like best engineering, best business model, most sustainable business ... we’re not getting anything,” Bryan Brittain, the business student on the BYU team, said. “We were like, ‘dang, they must have just hated us’ ... and when they announced third and second place, we were like, there’s no way we’re going to get first because there’s so many great teams.”
When Thrive Smart Systems was announced as the first-place winner of the 2019 Utah Entrepreneur Challenge, complete with a $40,000 grand prize, the team behind it was blown away.
“It’s really shocking,” Aislynn Edwards, the industrial designer on the BYU team, said. “It was awesome.”
Even a month after their win, the BYU team members still can’t believe their hard work of more than a year paid off in such a big way.
“We had worked so hard to get there,” Brittain said. “It’s ... been a roller coaster ride.”
Thrive Smart Systems came about thanks to the Crocker Innovation Fellowship, a BYU entrepreneurial fellowship founded in 2011 by Gary and Ann Crocker. Edwards and Brittain signed up to participate in the year-long fellowship, which is open to any major, in January 2018. All students were partnered up randomly, and teams were balanced as best they could be, with different engineering emphasis students, business students and design students, among others.
“And then they basically just tell you, go solve a problem and go create something,” Edwards said. “None of us really knew each other beforehand ... and it worked out super well, because we have an awesome group.”
The team split up into groups and went looking for problems to solve. Brittain said some group members were following photographers while others visited retirement homes, but one group went to talk to landscapers.
“(They) found a consistent problem with wiring from the control box out to the valves (for irrigation systems),” Brittain said. “And that’s when we kind of came together as a team, to kind of brainstorm ideas of how we could solve this problem ... after lots of prototyping and iterations and taking it to landscapers and retailers ... we kind of landed with our product.”
The “product” consists of two devices: a wireless board and a wireless valve switch.
The wireless board can be mounted next to the current control box landscapers use for their sprinkler system, and any wires plugged into it will be converted to a wireless signal, Brittain explained. The wireless valve switch goes next to the valve in the yard, or lawn, to receive the wireless signal which tells it to turn on or off.
What’s more, the system is powered by the water that runs through it, eliminating the need to replace a battery, a quality Brittain said landscapers found extremely attractive.
“We knew that we had struck gold,” Brittain said.
Edwards and Brittain said their confidence in the product was further boosted when they attended a trade show in California and had several companies approach them with a sincere interest in their product.
“We were the new thing that everybody needs,” Edwards said. “(We) got a lot of business cards.”
Of course, that didn’t mean they were a shoe-in for the Utah Entrepreneur Challenge, which is open to both college and high school students all over the state. Even with the high school and college entries going to two different competitions, the Lassonde Entrepreneurial Institute receives hundreds of entries that are then narrowed down to a top 20, program director Anne Bastien explained.
“We cultivate a community of judges ... professionals that are usually in the entrepreneurial world,” Bastien said. “They review the applications, and then we end up with a rank order selection of the top applicants.”
The top applicants are then invited to come pitch their product or business idea in front of the judges, a process Edwards described as “cutthroat.”
“The judges were really stone-faced,” Edwards said. “(I thought) that’s probably it.”
It’s all part of what’s mean to be a “transformative education experience” Bastien said, the rigor of not only submitting ideas in writing and online, but also having to pitch their ideas in a video, and possibly in front of judges.
“This is all with the intent of really building entrepreneurial skills and building the students’ capacity to go out and either perhaps continue to be founders of these companies and others, or just to be incredible talent in our workforce,” Bastien said.
For the Thrive Smart Systems team, they are funneling their $40,000 grand prize right into continuing to grow their company. Part of the $40,000 will go to buying a 3D printer, which is what they’ve been using to create their physical product, and what they will continue to use during alpha and likely during beta testing of the wireless system.
Testing of the product is launching in the next month or so, after most of the team members will have graduated. Their plan is to sell the product to landscape contractors at a wholesale price so they can then get feedback and continue to improve upon it, as well as generate demand.
“Once (landscape contractors) have used it, loved it, we’ve proven everything works perfectly, that’s when we’ll kind of look to take it to irrigation retailers in the beginning of 2020,” Brittain said.
There’s a good chance for their success, looking back at past challenge winners, Bastien said. She loves to keep track of past winners and noted that all of them went on to continue as entrepreneurs and even lead companies.
“It’s been fun to see ... the conversion rate on these students learning how to entrepreneur, they really go out into the market and are successful,” Bastien said.
She added that the Lassonde Entrepreneurial Institute is always looking to increase participation in the challenge year to year from students across the state.
“We really think they have bright ideas and they’re growing the skills to be great leaders in the future,” she said.
Despite their recent success, it’s only the beginning of a long, hard journey for Thrive Smart Systems.
“It’s been a fun ride and entrepreneurship rocks,” Brittain said. “And it’s realy hard.”
Brittain just quit his full-time job this week to dedicate his time to Thrive Smart Systems. Edwards will be working on Thrive Smart Systems part-time, while she also juggles a full-time position.
“It’s gonna be an adventure,” she said.