Coauthored by Andy Alexander

As attention to media entrepreneurship builds in journalism programs nationwide, we are using a competition at Ohio University to help students envision a future as creators and builders. Now in its second year, our Scripps Innovation Challenge asks students to solve real industry problems and stoke their startup fire along the way.

Drawing students from our own college and across the university, we focus on interdisciplinary work with students majoring in business, computer science, information systems, engineering and other disciplines. Students who reach the finals compete “Shark Tank”-style to pitch their ideas before a panel of media professionals and investors.

Our key goals: Bring students closer to industry and real-world problems and bring media partners closer to a coveted demographic of college-age students.

We worked through the Ohio Newspaper Association and the Ohio Association of Broadcasters to invite their members to submit problems news organizations face — our “challenges.” Three key elements shaped our approach:

  • We opened the challenge to any Ohio University students, recognizing that innovation can come from engineering or business majors, not just aspiring journalists.
  • Each entry must address the cost of innovation and how it might produce revenue.
  • $20,000 in prizes grabbed attention and inspired action.
Doug Mitchell, co-director at New U Incubator/National Public Radio, discusses the Scripps Innovation Challenge at the kickoff event in Baker Center on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014. / Photos by Yi-Ke Peng

Doug Mitchell, co-director at New U Incubator / Photos by Yi-Ke Peng


Thinking Entrepreneurially

The challenge is more than a simple contest. We use it as a framework to build entrepreneurial thinking and business model development. To that end, we’ve added specifics this year.

Business Model Design: Students used a text — Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur — to understand innovation and think about business models and revenue streams.

Mobile Module: We developed a two-week mobile module covering how one innovation is changing media delivery and consumption. An industry expert taught in four different classes during the two-week period, giving students gained insight into a particular technology and professors the ability to teach the module in subsequent semesters.

Co-Working Sessions: We developed biweekly co-working sessions where we showcased expert presentations for one hour, followed by time to work with faculty and presenters on a team’s specific idea.

Pitch Video: To learn the power of the pitch, students created a video that was judged along with the business model and an executive summary.

Diversity Enhancement Prize: We added a $5,000 bonus prize this year for the entry that provides a viable solution for reaching underserved and underrepresented communities.

William Crowder, managing partner at Comcast DreamIt Ventures, discusses the Scripps Innovation Challenge at the kickoff event in Baker Center on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014. / Photos by Yi-Ke Peng

William Crowder, managing partner at Comcast DreamIt Ventures / Photos by Yi-Ke Peng

Getting Bigger

With 31 entries, we nearly doubled the 17 we saw in our first year. We expanded the diversity of the competing teams with representation from four university colleges. We increased the number of faculty using the competition in capstone and other courses. And we’ve expanded the awareness of “entrepreneurial thinking” to hundreds of students through the mobile module and co-working sessions.

We’re coming up on Pitch Day April 21, where several hundred Ohio University students, faculty,  investors, entrepreneurs and a live-stream audience will hear live pitches by each of our seven final teams.

The Scripps Innovation Challenge is a simple idea, adaptable at other schools.

What We Learned

But first some caveats. It’s a daunting logistical undertaking and requires hands-on management. Our advice:

Start early. Engage faculty early in considering the competition for a range of classes. You can’t simply announce a contest at the beginning of a semester as students are already committed to certain classes. Announcing the competition at the outset of the previous term increases faculty adoption and the number of students who will make your contest a priority.

From left, Greg DiPasquale and Alexander Harshaw listen to a speech at the Scripps Innovaion Challenge kickoff event in Baker Center on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014. / Photos by Yi-Ke Peng

From left, Greg DiPasquale and Alexander Harshaw listen to a speech at the Scripps Innovaion Challenge kickoff event in Baker Center on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014. / Photos by Yi-Ke Peng

Market like crazy. We hired the student PRSSA chapter to handle a full-scale marketing campaign that included fliers, ads on campus video monitors, coffee sleeves and pizza boxes with the contest logo and website, tables at the student center, “chalking” sidewalks, stories on the campus TV and radio stations and lots of social media (Facebook page, tweets, etc.). And don’t discount the value of face-to-face interactions to spread the word. Our best way to inform students came from student representatives who went into classes and gave five-minute presentations about the challenge.

Start early to connect with media companies to gather your “challenges.” They need to be sold on the value of sharing their innovation needs. Our pitch to them: You’ll have access to all of the ideas the students come up with, even if they aren’t contest winners. And if you think any entries have commercial viability, we’ll put you in touch with the students (who, as a condition for entering the contest, were required to sign agreements saying they owned the intellectual property but it would be shared publicly).

Line up your judges well in advance. Both preliminary judges (to narrow the field) and final “Pitch Day” judges are going to be busy.  The earlier you talk to them, the better the chance they can fit it into their schedule.

Find or create an example entry. Despite the clearest instructions, the most requested (and appreciated) resource is an example entry. Give your contestants something concrete they can see. Otherwise, they’re flying blind and only guess at what constitutes a quality entry.

Think about partnering to provide resources. We found our university library willing and eager to help provide specific reference materials and provide a librarian who could answer research questions. Our Center for Entrepreneurship and university Innovation Center provided speakers and judges who helped raise the visibility of the challenge across the university.

Students don’t know what they don’t know. They appreciate quick critiques of draft entries. Professors can review student work and pitches to raise the level of the final entries and final presentations significantly.

Provide resources for learning: When it comes to entrepreneurship and business, most non-business majors are clueless. They don’t understand that innovation has a cost, even if it’s staff time to develop an app. They don’t know anything about revenue streams or return on investment. You’ll need to educate them with some Business 101. Our co-working spaces allowed us to ensure everyone had access to basic information and coaching.

Find ways to be flexible to reach distant students. Put speaker talks and resources online and use digital communication and collaboration tools.

Don’t underestimate the effort required to pull off a successful contest. Think in terms of main roles — media liaison, industry interface, student guidance, event planner, and judging coordinator just to begin the list.

Solicit timely feedback from student competitors and judges. What gets measured gets better.

Dr. Michelle Ferrier is associate dean for innovation at the Scripps College of Communication, Ohio University. Her research interests include media entrepreneurship, online communities and hyperlocal online news. She oversees the Gaming Research and Immersive Design Lab, the Scripps Innovation Challenge and other entrepreneurship opportunities. Andy Alexander is a Scripps Howard Visiting Professional and director of the Scripps Innovation Challenge.

If you would like an invite to the live-streaming of our Pitch Day event on April 21 from 2 to 5 p.m. ET, please contact Dr. Michelle Ferrier,