Alternative energy fuels high school students' enthusiasm

Indiana high school students recently tackled the business plans necessary to move alternative energy companies from idea to successful realities.

As part of the Purdue Research Park Entrepreneurship Academy at Purdue University’s College of Technology at South Bend, three teams of high school students worked for a week on ideas to commercialize projects based on wind power, alternative aviation fuel, and fuel made from algae.

Along with South Bend-area mentors, the teams used the “So what? Who cares? Why you?” entrepreneurship methodology to lead them through the week. At the end of the week, all three teams were asked to give an investor pitch to a panel of judges in a business plan competition setting. Judges looked for the most solid business strategy and potential for success.

The team working on making fuel from algae was named the winner at the academy’s award ceremony July 13.  Members of the winning team were Emily Song from Penn High School (South Bend), Matt Danik from Clay High School (South Bend), Andrew Witten from Signature High School (Evansville), and Cooper Thompson from St. Theodore Guerin High School (Noblesville) Their mentor was Scott Franko. All members of the winning team were awarded tuition vouchers to Purdue University.

“I enjoyed the interactive workshops where we learned the risks and challenges of starting your own business,” Song said. “The networking reception was a great learning experience because we were able to interact with people from the community.”

Also at the awards ceremony, Cole Jacobson from John Glenn High School (Walkterton) was selected by students to receive the Entrepreneurial Award of Distinction for the 2012 academy class.

The academy at South Bend was modeled after the successful program at Purdue in West Lafayette.  “This is the first time the program has been offered in the state outside of Purdue’s West Lafayette campus,” said Mike Sanders, director of Purdue’s College of Technology at South Bend. “Purdue recognizes that we need to train more youth in entrepreneurial endeavors. It’s a need in the community, too. We need more people trained to start businesses and to make jobs, not just take jobs, when they graduate.”

To make sure they attracted the right students, the academy was offered free of charge (except for a minimal registration fee). Participants had to be nominated by their high school teachers, who were asked to identify students strong in STEM subjects and who have expressed an interest in starting or running their own businesses.

Local mentors volunteered their time to work with students on their business plans during the academy. They included: Luis Montestruque of EmNet; Scott Franko of US Signcrafters, Building Impressions, and Franko Design Concepts; and Dick Ditto of SCORE and Small Business Development.

“My mentor was great. He gave me his card and told me to look him up in the near future,” said Isaac Fisch of John Adams High School (South Bend).

Judges for the competition were Angie Nelson from NIPSCO, Dave McCormick of McCormick Engineering, and Mary Naragon, trust officer with Wells Fargo. Keynote speaker for the awards luncheon was South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.  The students also learned about public speaking and marketing from Lynn Zolman of Communication Company Inc., and David Morgan of Force 5 Media.

See an interview Mike Sanders did with WNIT, South Bend's public television station.

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