As an intern at the University of Pittsburgh Innovation Institute, I consider myself one of the luckiest people at the university. My job allows me to see all of the amazing and inspiring ideas that arise from Pitt students, from undergraduates to post-docs. However, no event showcases our school’s indisputable capacity to change the world like the Randall Family Big Idea Competition.
The second round of this annual Pitt competition, which took place Thursday, March 5, involved more than 85 student teams — nearly double the size of last year’s competition. The teams pitched their hearts out with the hope of advancing their “big ideas” to the final round. I had the unique pleasure of experiencing the competition from the vantage point of the judges’ table.


Alongside four distinguished judges, I witnessed 10 pitches, each no longer than 5 minutes. No pitch was alike. The ideas ranged from food service applications and medical devices to informational databases. But, with each pitch, the judges’ questions and assessment criteria remained sternly consistent. Here’s what they looked for:

  • What’s the problem?
    The first thing the judges looked for was for each group to identify a real marketplace problem. Once the problem was identified, the judges wanted each group to concisely explain how the product being pitched would solve that problem. In an elevator pitch, this should be simple and straightforward and should take no longer than one minute. Hypothetical stories, the judges suggested, are excellent tools to break down complex problems and products – as long as they are concise and to the point. However, long and rambling stories actually can detract from your pitch. In a five-minute pitch, they said, it’s critically important to spend every second driving a pitch forward.
  • What is your value proposition?
    After the problem and solution, the judges looked for each group to explain the innovation’s value proposition. A value proposition describes the value of the innovation from the perspective of potential customers and in contrast to the products of existing. The Big Idea Competition’s top-tier pitches not only possessed a clear, realistic value proposition, but the teams also had a firm grasp as to why current competitors weren’t already capitalizing on such an idea. The judges wanted to see each team address why its product wasn’t in existence already. Some of the responses: regulatory, lack of expertise, industry trends, etc. The most successful teams explained how they planned to overcome these obstacles and provided the market research to back it up.
  • How will you make money?
    The judges also wanted to see practical, realistic business models. The most frequent questions asked by the judges were as follows: Who is the customer? Who is the end user? What is the revenue model? What is the projected overhead cost? What are the projected profit margins? How will you scale your business? The ability to answer these questions, the judges noted, distinguishes a good idea from an investment-worthy great idea. Experienced professionals seem to have an uncanny ability to discern when a team had put in the necessary time to refine its idea into an investment-worthy idea. The judges, of course, certainly will not be duped by indolence.
  • Can a team handle constructive criticism?
    The final judging criterion: positive reception to criticism. Once an idea had successfully passed all of the other judging criteria, the Big Idea judges wanted to gain a sense of understanding of the innovators – the people driving the idea. While the judges appreciated seeing tenacity and fervor by the innovators what they really were looking for was the teams’ willingness to accept and heed advice. The teams that were selected to advance didn’t always bring the best ideas. Some teams actually advanced by displaying their willingness and preparedness to pivot their existing ideas into a superior ideas. Thus, for the competition, teams needed to understand that their pitches not only promoted their ideas or products, but also themselves.

If there was one thing the judges agreed upon, it was that selecting the 35 teams to advance in the Randall Family Big Idea Competition wasn’t easy. Many ideas have the potential to revolutionize the world around us. As the final round of the Big Idea Competition is right around the bend (April 2), the advancing teams head back to their drawing boards equipped with seasoned guidance.

For the teams that were cut, though, don’t be discouraged. Understand that, by making it this far, you are now a Pitt Innovators. The best thing to do – especially if you’re not graduating yet – is utilize the Innovation Institute’s many on-campus resources to get ahead for next year’s competition, because if you don’t, someone else will…