An array of innovators take part in 2023 EQ Student Pitch Competition

by | Mar 20, 2023

Michael Pepper, Kolby Pierce and Denae Howard captured the top three prizes in the annual competition, which serves as a way to boost student entrepreneurs.
Winners of a competition stand in front of administrators with big checks.

(From left) Denae Howard, Michael Pepper and Kolby Pierce show off their awards from UMSL Accelerate’s EQ Student Pitch Competition. (Photo by Wendy Todd)

Michael Pepper, a junior majoring in business administration with an emphasis in entrepreneurship, loves playing virtual reality games. But one day his favorite pastime became treacherous when he began continuously injuring his hand. He even stopped for a while for fear of hurting himself again.

“I was just like, ‘I’m taking a break. I don’t want to play this. I’m too scared to play it,’” he said.

Though he’d already had an idea – a glove that would protect the gamer’s hand while also allowing for the flexibility needed to play – he finally decided to develop it. So he came up with V Armor and presented it at the University of Missouri–St. Louis’ 2023 EQ Student Pitch Competition.

Pepper took first place.

UMSL Accelerate held the annual competition last Thursday with the top three student competitors winning cash infusions of $3,000, $2,000 or 1,000 along with mentorship and resources to grow their products and businesses.

Pepper, whose mother was in the audience and gasped with delight when her son’s name was announced as the winner, will use the funds to commission a professional prototype to show potential manufacturers.

One of the judges, Maria DeGregorio, a business counselor at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, was happy to participate in the event and support burgeoning entrepreneurs.

“I really enjoyed seeing younger people and new generations being involved in entrepreneurship,” she said. “I think it’s key for any economic development to have new ideas and innovation coming from younger generations, and I think it’s really key that the university and any educational institution they may be attending encourages that, giving them the tools, resources and mentorship that is needed in order to succeed when they’re in the real world.”

Michael Kehoe, an assistant teaching professor of entrepreneurship in the UMSL College of Business Administration, believes the event demonstrated the impact of UMSL Accelerate and the support it and the university provide to student entrepreneurs.

“These types of events, where we get to see the real-world implications of the work we do, are very fulfilling personally and professionally,” he said. “It’s why we do what we do. We’re not teaching for teaching’s sake; we want to make the world a better place. One of the vehicles by which people do that is through entrepreneurship, and if we can pour knowledge, resources and connections into our students to help them reach the next level of their development faster than they would otherwise, then that’s why we get up in the morning.”

Denae Howard, a senior accounting major, collected the third prize for her product, Naeana’s cookies, which are sold at her family’s business, Gobble Stop Smokehouse in Creve Coeur, Missouri. She will be putting the winnings toward getting a recently purchased industrial oven operational to increase baking capacity.

Winning in the competition helps Howard move closer to realizing the plans she has for the future of the business.

“We do want to have a storefront and maybe a potential desert food truck,” she said. “Or we could cater to intimate family gatherings and family reunions, birthday parties, anniversaries and things of that nature.”

Kolby Pierce, a senior majoring in marketing with no prior pitch experience, won second prize for his product, the ECO Gasket. It’s a device for yard sprayers that can withstand the acidity of natural remedies like vinegar and won’t deteriorate over time.

Pierce, who works as a customer service representative at a yard sprayer company and constantly hears complaints about sprayers breaking, developed his product by testing the resilience of the rubber on the doorframe in his residence hall. He took a shot in the competition, with no idea of his chances. Surprised to win, he’s glad he took the chance and is letting his victory sink in.

“It feels good,” he said. “It feels a little weird, kind of unreal in a way, but I think it’s going to hit me more tonight. Once I’m falling asleep, it will be like, ‘Hey, this is real.’”

Wendy Todd

Wendy Todd