Central Solutions Group pitch their concept for meeting non-emergency medical transportation needs.

Business Plan Competition Showcases Innovation for Social Good

By Sue McMurray

Solutions to some of the most pressing business and social concerns of today and tomorrow are developed by WSU business students who may not have even reached their 22nd birthday. For 20 years, the Carson College of Business has hosted an annual Business Plan Competition that gives students opportunity to showcase an entrepreneurial idea, practice business in a real-world setting, and learn directly from industry professionals.

Students work individually or in teams with Marie Mayes, director of the WSU Center for Entrepreneurship, to prepare to compete in open, collegiate, and high school leagues for cash and in-kind prizes. More than 120 entrepreneurs, investors, and industry leaders join virtually and in person to judge the competition.

This year’s competition was the largest and most diverse in WSU’s history. The unique teams represented a wide variety of academic majors and programs of study as well as genders, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds.

“Interest in, and access to, entrepreneurial learning is growing at WSU and throughout our region. That is clearly evident by the diversity represented in this year’s venture teams and their business ideas,” Mayes says. “This growth is building a future workforce from our region that will be prepared to bring innovative solutions for social good.”

Some of the highest award-winning ideas presented by the student venture teams included websites and apps for improving campus safety, foster care resources, and business efficiency.

U-Shield mobile app increases safety and security on campus

U-Shield app founders Aline Uwase and Junhui Zhang present their work.

Most campuses have generic safety-focused mobile apps, but they aren’t specifically designed for college students, according to U-Shield app founders Libby Hults, Xuanfu Huang, Aline Uwase, Junhui Zhang, and Wanting Wu, WSU students who won the $4,000 fourth place prize and the Herbert B. Jones Merit Prize for Best Social Impact Business at this year’s competition.

Even in idyllic small towns like Pullman, university students struggle to feel safe. While preparing for the competition, the team was guided by 2021 research that reported 82 percent of American college students felt concerned about personal safety, with more than half feeling very or extremely concerned, because they didn’t know what resources to access or when to access them. Only 13 percent used campus prevention resources, and more than 55 percent admitted they don’t ask friends for help for fear of being judged.

“Although we created the app with women in mind due to sexual assault and violence statistics, the app is for all students,” Hults says. “We designed it to be user-friendly to bridge the gap between students’ safety and institutionalized campus safety resources.”

The app’s features are driven by what survey responders identified as the highest safety needs, for example “safe walk,” a feature that allows users to send their location to a friend or family member who can watch them walk to a destination in real time. Emergency procedures and contacts, crime reporting, and a variety of mental health resources are also included. The app features an AI chatbot, a major selling point for Gen Z audiences who are used to communicating that way, Uwase says. “Users describe a problem, and the chatbot directs them to the appropriate resource.”

The team earned buy-in from the WSU Women’s Center, Title IX program, and WSU Housing, who agreed to participate in launching the live app should the team decide to proceed with the venture.

CARE mobile app connects foster care youth to communities and resources

CARE mobile app creators discuss their project with a judge.

According to reports by the US Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 400,000 children entered foster care in the United States in 2021, with nearly 11,000 in Washington state. Mental and behavioral health is the largest unmet need for foster children and teens.

Statistics like these are what drew Jessica Sheets’s attention when she began contemplating a project for the Business Plan Competition: “I thought ‘how can I use my resources, privilege, and knowledge to create a more livable space and experience for youth in the foster care system?’”

She found a path by connecting with fellow students Molly Jones, Alex Stewart, and Michael Ottesen, all of whom expressed interest in the project.

The team created Community and Resource Engagement for Foster Youth (CARE), a website and mobile app offering individuals under 18 in the Washington state foster care system free resources for crisis support, legal aid, court advocacy, counseling, and information about aging out of the system.

“There are many resources available in the foster care system, but no organizations currently offer an integrated, communal platform,” Sheets says.

The team surveyed approximately 25 people who had experienced foster care and developed the platform’s 15 categories of support resources. Their innovation captured the competition’s $5,000 BECU Merit Prize in the Best FinTech category.

“This was a passion project for me, and something I want to continue,” Ottesen says. “I can see CARE potentially expanding into more high-risk areas in California and perhaps beyond to improve foster care nationally.

Central Solutions Group creates business efficiency for transportation companies

Central Solutions Group team members address questions during the trade show portion of the competition.

According to AARP, about 600,000 older adults stop driving each year, making it hard to make it to doctor appointments, run errands, or visit family—known as “non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT)” scenarios in the business industry. Besides seniors, other people who live in rural communities with limited access to public transit require alternative ways to get around.

This situation creates a niche for NEMT development, something Emiliano De La Rosa has been thinking about for four years. He’s already had professional experience working full-time as an executive administrator and lead supervisor for NEMT companies in southern California. As an employee, De La Rosa discovered NEMT companies commonly outsource business operations, which can lead to disorganization and undue expense.

“The high costs associated with outsourcing hinder transportation companies’ ability to reinvest in the business,” he says. “For some time, I had the idea to create a comprehensive platform that reduces expenses by centralizing crucial business processes into one website and mobile app.”

He decided to develop an entrepreneurial concept for the Business Plan Competition. To prepare, he found four team members who shared his entrepreneurial spirit: Cole Garner, Angel Arteaga, Hunter Escorcia, and Priscilla Meza. Together, they developed the concept for Central Solutions Group (CSG) to help NEMT providers reduce business operation costs by up to 20 percent.
“It was an amazing experience to work with thriving and passionate individuals,” Meza says. “I learned so much about the entrepreneurial process and the NEMT industry.”

The CSG administrative web platform allows NEMT providers to manage employees, payroll, vehicles, scheduling, billing and invoicing, files, data tracking, and communication all in one place. NEMT providers pay one small fee per trip versus additional fees for specific services, individual employees, and vehicles, as is common practice with NEMT competitors. The CSG mobile app is free to drivers, enabling them to relay live trip information back to their headquarters and access job records, daily tasks, their employee profile, and vehicle routes with just a few clicks.

The CSG team earned fifth place and $2,000 at the Business Plan Competition.

“It was amazing to learn so much from the NEMT industry as well as the process of making our platform come to life,” Arteaga says.

“Receiving NEMT providers’ interest and positive feedback when we interviewed them about our concept was very validating,” De La Rosa says. “I’ve become a better leader and team player as a result of this experience.”

Read more about the 2023 Business Plan Competition results