Chariho Incubator students make their pitches to local business panel, "Shark-Tank" style

The Westerly Sun - May 30, 2018

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WOOD RIVER JCT. — Four teams of seniors presented their product ideas Tuesday at the first Chariho INCubator pitch night. 

A panel of judges, or “sharks,” all from the business community, questioned each team about its product, marketing strategy and financial projections.

The final scores were close, but Team EZ-Out was the winner for designing a computer app that allows customers to order and pay for restaurant meals on their phones.

INCubator instructor and Chariho STEM specialist Susie Scanapieco thanked the volunteer judges, coaches, and mentors for guiding the students through the process from preliminary ideas to final pitches.

“I didn’t teach the class at all,” she said. “I had the set-up, I had the curriculum, but it was all these volunteer adults that made these kids grow as much as they did.”

The program offers seniors, who often coast through their final semester having completed their required schoolwork, opportunities to explore, develop and present their business ideas. Mentors recruited from the local business community guide them through the process.

Chariho is the first school district in New England to offer the INCubatoredu program from the Illinois-based company Uncharted Learning. 

Funding for the initiative came from the Community 2000 Education Foundation, the Rotary Club of Chariho, the Kimball Foundation and the Rhode Island Office of Innovation.

“We want them using their imaginations, especially as they move towards the end of their high school careers, and to do something really powerful and meaningful this late in their high school experience is that much more satisfying for all of us,” Chariho Principal Craig MacKenzie said.

Assistant Principal Andrea Spas noted that participating seniors became deeply engaged in their last few months of school.

“So much of this has been student-driven and student-led in terms of seeing their ideas come to this final stage in the game,” she said.

The three other contenders were Team SnapBudz, with an idea for ear phones with replaceable components, Team CafeVapes, who pitched a vaping device that would deliver caffeine instead of nicotine, and Team Thermo-Gloves, student athletes who proposed heated athletic gloves that would be thin enough to maintain dexterity for sports and keep hands warm and flexible.

Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee, who presented the award to the winning team, said the state was taking notice of the Chariho program. 

“I think Chariho’s a good example of how this can work, entrepreneur-wise to get the innovation going in the state,” he said. “Our office has a statewide entrepreneur challenge and a number of the students here tonight are going to participate in that,” he said.

Daniela Fairchild, Director of Education for the Rhode Island Office of Innovation, said her office was also closely watching the Chariho initiative.

“We’re seeing one of our high schools pilot a program that we have our eyes on to potentially be able to scale out and offer it to other high schools in the state, but it’s also an interesting connection between our academic pipeline and our career and technical education pathways,” she said.

One of the judges, Karl Wadensten, owner of VIBCO vibrators, also sits on the Board of Directors of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation.

“Universities and the most progressive high schools across the country are all doing this to give the students a taste of the real world, to have to think through a model, to have to do some critical thinking to understand the steps involved, and then to present it to a group,” he said. “I think it’s fantastic.”

The initial program lasted just a single semester, but seniors will be able to enroll for a full year in September. 

After accepting their first-prize certificates, Team EZ-Out members Allison Dufficy, Jacklyn Gannon and Jared Parente were excited, and more than a bit relieved, that they had made a winning pitch.

“I didn’t feel good going into it, but after I presented (I felt) pretty good about what we did,” Dufficy said. 

“I definitely felt the same way, Gannon said. “We definitely put a lot of work into it.”

Parente, who will study finance at the University of Rhode Island, answered the judges’ tough money questions.

“We pulled it together pretty well, I think, and about halfway through, I felt that we had it,” he said.