By Michelle Price
Special to the UCBJ
COOKEVILLE – Tennessee Tech’s Eagle Works competition has brought a Shark Tank-style event to campus for six straight years, and for some, it’s been a life changing opportunity.
Held each April, Eagle Works has helped many students launch new businesses. For MBA student Abby Collins of Cookeville, who has entered four of the first five competitions, Eagle Works has changed her future.
Eagle Works is an interdisciplinary pitch contest styled in the manner of the popular network television show Shark Tank. It started in 2014 as the Innovation Entrepreneurship Competition and was primarily for engineering and business majors. It caught on and gained interest campus wide.
Last year it hit a new milestone, with at least one student from each of Tech’s colleges competing and 47 majors represented. A team of 15 professors from varying backgrounds serves as a resource for the students competing.
Collins probably knows the ins and outs of Eagle Works better than any other student. In her four times competing, she finished second three times and third once.
As a freshman Collins was focused on playing soccer and earning her degree in chemical engineering. As a University Innovation Fellow, she had traveled to California and among other adventures, she “experienced” life as a Google employee for a day.
Collins had never heard of Eagle Works until the first year when she got “thrown” on a team. A professor paired her up with a team of engineering students and one other freshman, a business major named Ashlin Wildun. That year her team finished in third place.
“I learned that entrepreneurship doesn’t have set parameters,” said Collins. “It’s not an engineer, you can be a nurse or anything.”
Collins’ first experience with Eagle Works and the business world caused her to reconsider her career choice. As a child she wanted to be a lawyer but, before Eagle Works, she had decided to follow her father’s footsteps into medicine. (Her father is Cookeville urologist Tim Collins.)
“After my first Eagle Works experience, I knew I wanted to go into intellectual property law, and currently I’m getting my master’s in business administration,” said Collins. “I will complete that at the end of the summer and hopefully begin law school in the fall.
“I want to be able to help students like me that have great ideas, protect their ideas until they get to the point they have enough knowledge in their field to do something with those ideas. Whether that be start a business, sell the patent, whatever that might be.”
Collins credits the University Innovation Fellowship (UIF) and Eagle Works for the changes she has made.
“That change came from working with UIF and ultimately the people I met through Eagle Works, because that opened the doors for me to get to know people like Jeff Brown (The Biz Foundry) and to get to know local entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs like, for example, the Flemings. Getting to know them and having their support during all of my participation in Eagle Works has really changed the course of my career and my education,” she said.
The second year Collins teamed with Wildun again and “created” an app. They competed on just the idea of the app with no working model and placed second.
An app named Gigamunchapp.com won in 2016. Based in the Nashville area, they describe themselves as the Etsy of food. It is a meal delivery service that partners with different international chefs. They partner with chefs, plan out a meal, and create the story about the chef to go with it. It’s a dining experience for people who want to eat well in the home. They even have their own industrial kitchen. They are doing quite well, earning $400,000 in revenue their first year in business, and are now exploring expansion into other markets. After winning Eagle Works they entered LaunchTN’s 36/86, the statewide competition, and placed there as well.
“I really feel that the organizers of Eagle Works go out of their way to prepare you for the competition,” said Collins. “You don’t just show up on competition day without any help.”
Collins described the preparation for the competition and the professional development the students received.
“There’s workshops each week and things as you go that really engaged us as students and competitors and helped us get to know the other teams,” she said. “They wanted us to be competitive, but they also wanted to support us and help us see our ideas through even past the competition. And I really liked that.”
A software application called Safesurv won in 2017. They invented a scanning device that is able to scan any government document, driver’s license, etc., and tell you if it is a forgery or not. This company came about because one of the students had a friend in high school that got a fake ID, went to the liquor store and then to a party, never making it home. The student wanted to do something to help curb underage drinking in the community, so he developed this. The business owner can install it at any point of sale. Now instead of marketing the scanner, they give the customer the scanner and collect the data and sell it.
Safesurv has progressed since the competition with many just-in-time inventory enhancements. Using data received along with purchasing trends, it can notify business owners and wholesalers of potential shortages and trigger larger orders. For example, it was used in Memphis to track Saturday night bourbon sales at nightclubs and it alerted the liquor distributors that Monday morning bourbon deliveries needed to be made to restock local inventories.
“My fourth year I competed with some people that I had met through my bioresearch,” said Collins. “We developed a process to separate DNA. When you look at DNA, you can physically look at DNA, but you have to separate it in a certain way then you can see it with your naked eye. You have to use UV light, but the UV light can kill up to 99 percent of the DNA as you look at it. We developed a process where you don’t have to use UV light, so you can conserve your samples.
“We came in second, and we actually are still pursuing this idea. We filed our provisional patent for that device, and we are tweaking it and building it as we go. Although the team has gone different ways in their careers – one is working, one is getting her Ph.D., and I am getting my master’s – we are still pursuing the idea.”
The competition last year was fierce.
An idea called ATS Innovations won in 2018. An article about their success with their Metaflex Therapy Glove was published in the UCBJ in December 2018. The team developed a glove to help mitigate the effects of arthritis. The team consisted of a mechanical engineer, a chemical engineer and a nursing student. They are currently in talks with several big-name medical device manufacturers about getting this made and licensed. The Center for Rural Innovation has helped them with providing interns, with branding and some product testing.
“Eagle works has shown me you don’t have to wait until you graduate to start your career,” added Collins. “You can go ahead and be pursuing those ideas and potential business ideas right then.”
Eagle Works has given Collins a new outlook on business and entrepreneurs.
“It’s taught me to think about problems differently. At first, in college, I would look at that and think ‘Oh that would be awesome to do someday.’ With Eagle Works, I really feel it encourages students to solve problems we see now. And people that we have competed against are running their businesses.
“I’ve learned through the MBA program that I’m in now that there tends to be a lack of understanding that entrepreneurs are creative thinkers and they’re people who think outside the box and pursue ideas. They don’t wait to pursue their ideas.”
Eagle Works is a community event that will be held Saturday, April 6. It kicks off with a trade show held from 10 – 11:30 a.m. in the Tech Pride Room of the Roaden University Center. The main competition is where the six finalist teams come to present their companies in a Shark Tank style pitch presentation followed by the guest speaker and the presentation of awards. This will be held from 1:30 – 3:30 p.m. in the Derryberry Hall Auditorium. For more information, see the Eagle Works website or its FaceBook page.
For more information on the collaboration that goes into Eagle Works, see UCBJ’s article Collaboration across colleges spurs Eagle Works success.
For the official Tennessee Tech press release on Eagle works, see https://www.tntech.edu/news/releases/18-19/eagle-works-preview-for-this-saturday.php