Bronco Innovators Challenge inspires creativity, encourages entrepreneurship

Contact: Erin Flynn

Left to right: Dr. Steven Butt, dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Imani Williams; Taylor Auby; Renee Cilluffo; Wesley Banks; Dr. Remzi Seker, vice president for research and innovation; Jacob Paquette; Jeff Breneman, vice president for government relations; and McKenzie Covington.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Beyond the classroom, the next generation of innovators is thriving at Western Michigan University through mentorship and guided peer collaboration. 

The inaugural Bronco Innovators Challenge, launched in January 2023 to encourage undergraduate creative scholarship and entrepreneurship, finished the spring semester with five teams of students earning funding to take their projects to the next level.

"I was impressed by the level of professionalism our students demonstrated," says Dr. Remzi Seker, vice president for research and innovation. "At Western Michigan University, we foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship that allows students to engage in research early on in their educational journeys." 

Winning projects covered a vast spectrum of ideas from a virtual makerspace to a sustained flight model for gliders. Students receiving awards included Wesley Banks for Project Vinci, Renee Cilluffo for Essentials WorkBag, McKenzie Covington for Made by McKenzie Lee, Jacob Paquette for Paquette Aviation Innovations Restorative Energy Aircraft Project and Imani Williams for Breaking Crucial Boundaries.


The challenge invited students to pitch product and business concepts to fellow students and then form teams to develop those ideas. 

With support from the Office of Research and Innovation, students attended professional development workshops on topics such as customer cultivation, intellectual property rights and fundraising while also connecting with industry mentors who helped them turn their concepts into viable business plans. 

They ended the semester with a complete pitch deck and the opportunity to present their idea to judges in the "Shark Tank" style for potential funding.

"Projects like the Bronco Innovators Challenge help students develop important skills and give them a competitive edge as they progress through their careers while also potentially inspiring some really innovative products and technologies to benefit society as a whole," says Seker.

Banks, an engineering student from Chicago, used the challenge as a launchpad to turn a concept he'd begun thinking about in the early days of the pandemic into a reality. His vision, Project Vinci, is a virtual community that will eventually offer forums for creators to connect and ideate on projects, an academic area featuring virtual STEM and arts classes, and a makerspace for prototyping projects.

"Most of us engineers are focused on innovation and efficiency, but there's also the business aspect that allows us to structure our ideas more. So it was definitely necessary and was great to talk to (the mentors)," he says. "They taught us how to bring (our idea) to life, which was amazing."

The challenge also helped Banks build a team of fellow engineering students to turn his concept into a reality. Over the summer, they've begun developing a webpage and set up a lab space with 3D printers to carry out projects. Project Vinci plans to unveil two more large projects at Bronco Bash.

Cilluffo, a mechanical engineering and product design double major from metro Detroit, has been designing her own handbags since middle school. The Bronco Innovators Challenge helped her take a step toward turning that hobby into a business venture. 

Mentors-in-residence David Dusseau and Kari Haab, who both have extensive experience in startups and the technology sector, gave her important insight into what she could expect in the infancy of her business.

"I would like to start my own company one day selling products and tech I design and engineer, so it was very beneficial to familiarize myself with the industry," she says. The challenge also gave her the opportunity to improve her pitching skills, which will be crucial as she looks to move her idea forward. "I became much more comfortable presenting. There were times I had to improvise on the spot or rely on the memory of what I prepared on the slides to present when curveballs were thrown."

This summer, Cilluffo is working on completing a prototype for her Essentials WorkBag, which she says will be waterproof, easy to wash and incorporate a variety of velcro add-on options to make the bag entirely customizable. She's also looking for a potential manufacturer.

A fellow maker, Covington would like to scale up her jewelry-making business and open a studio where people can craft their own creations. She says the challenge offered invaluable opportunities to push her idea into the future.

"I am so grateful for this experience and for all the help that was offered to me. It was an amazing opportunity to grow so many of my skills at once. The structure of the challenge encouraged teamwork and I felt hard work was rewarded," says Covington, a product design student from Muskegon, Michigan."We were able to be collaborative without feeling like we were in competition with one another. Hopefully, next year more of my classmates will be able to join me. 

Seker hopes to inspire many more projects like these with new iterations of the Bronco Innovators Challenge on the horizon. The next challenge will launch in fall 2023 and culminate with presentations during a comprehensive research week in spring 2024.

"As a high-research University, Western prides itself on not only providing experience-driven educational opportunities for our students but also contributing to the public good, and the Bronco Innovators Challenge captures the spirit of both of those," Seker says. "We're excited with how the first challenge went and look forward to enhancing opportunities for innovation in the future."