Inaugural Lowell High Idea Challenge Showcases Collaboration and Creativity

A person in glasses and suit makes a presentation in front of a screen with a red slide and text. Image by Ed Brennen
Lowell High School student John Khat presents his team's proposed business idea for a "rage room" during the recent Lowell High Idea Challenge, a collaboration with UML's Rist DifferenceMaker Institute and Project Learn that is supported by a grant from M&T Bank.

By Ed Brennen

Lowell High School sophomore Miah Oeur wants to follow in her mom’s footsteps and become an entrepreneur.

She took a big step by winning the inaugural Lowell High Idea Challenge, a business pitch contest held in collaboration with UMass Lowell’s Rist DifferenceMaker Institute and the nonprofit organization Project LEARN.

“My jaw dropped when they said I won,” said Oeur, who topped a field of eight finalists with her polished proposal for NLBM, or Nails and Lashes By Miah, a salon that aims to save people time by combining services. “This is something I want to do, and I’m even more focused on it now.”

While Lowell High students have visited UML in recent years to learn about the DifferenceMaker program, this is the first time the schools have partnered to offer a high school version of the Idea Challenge. The pilot program was funded by a grant from M&T Bank.

A person smiles and holds a certificate in front of a TV monitor while another person claps for them. Image by Ed Brennen
Lowell High Idea Challenge winner Miah Oeur is congratulated by Assoc. Prof. Steven Tello, who helped create the DifferenceMaker program in 2011.

In February, Lowell High business teacher Wayne Taylor brought about 100 students from his five entrepreneurship classes to UML’s Innovation Hub, where they participated in a hands-on design-thinking challenge. Over the next several weeks, a half dozen faculty members from the Manning School of Business, as well as DifferenceMaker staff members and local business leaders, visited the classes to talk about entrepreneurship.

“It was fun to see their creativity. They definitely had different ideas than you see in college competitions,” said DifferenceMaker co-op Alexa Henderson, a rising sophomore business major from Natick, Massachusetts.

Eighty students came up with 53 business ideas, which they pitched in a preliminary round to a panel of judges from the DifferenceMaker program. Eight of those teams advanced to the recent Idea Challenge, where they presented to a panel of judges that included recent DifferenceMaker winners Joshua Landis ’22, ’24 and Sandi DeRuntz. Lowell High alum Peter Martin, a senior manager at Airbnb, and Charles Smith, director of the Entrepreneurship Center at Community Teamwork, also judged.

Four people sit at a table and look at papers in a school cafeteria. Image by Ed Brennen
Lowell High Idea Challenge judges, from left, Charles Smith, Joshua Landis '22, '24, Sandi DeRuntz and Peter Martin deliberate at a cafeteria table after hearing from the eight finalists.

“It’s exciting for high school students to have exposure to a competition like this where they can pursue ideas,” said Landis, a mechanical engineering alum who won DifferenceMaker’s recent $50K Idea Challenge for his concrete monitoring device SparkCell Technologies. “It’s an invaluable experience that a lot of students will be able to use on their college applications.”

“It was fun to be on the other side of the judge’s table and give the teams feedback. I know what that meant to me,” added DeRuntz, a senior liberal arts major who won DifferenceMaker’s Francis College of Engineering Prototyping competition for her adaptive clothing device Zipper Buddy.

DeRuntz praised Oeur’s “super-impressive” winning presentation.

“Her passion was clear, and her plan was reasonable. We all knew that this is something she’s definitely going to pursue,” DeRuntz said.

Jake Descheneaux, Jack Soucy and Nathan Dodge took second place with Glove Merchants, a business that would break in new baseball gloves for athletes.

Walter Palacio and Bobby Pappaconstantinou took third with ZZocks, compression socks with built-in photonic chips to monitor ankle injuries.

A person plays a guitar while several people look on in a school cafeteria. Image by Ed Brennen
A team member from Riff, a proposed business that would create affordable musical instruments from recycled materials, plays an electric guitar for judges at the Lowell High Idea Challenge.

Other business ideas included a “rage room” where people can destroy discarded household items to relieve stress and a company that would make affordable musical instruments from recycled materials.

Each member of the top three teams received $100 Amazon gift cards; honorable mentions received $50 gift cards.

Like Oeur, sophomore Lucas Scollin is interested in starting his own business someday. He saw the competition as a helpful introduction to entrepreneurship.

“It was a good template for how you set up a business,” said Scollin, who received an honorable mention with classmate Sereyrath Rith for their pet-sitting business Kennel Kompanians. “You learn to stimulate your creativity for different ideas, how to identify problems and how to solve them.”

Scollin said he was inspired by the visit to the Innovation Hub, which “provided a glimpse of what you might do in college.” 

Taylor looks forward to continuing the partnership with UML and Project LEARN next year and beyond.

“Students learn real-life skills — how to give a presentation, talk to people and answer questions,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful success.”

MBA student Nick Jarek ’23, who coordinated the event as lead co-op for DifferenceMaker, was happy to give the students a stage for their ideas — and a chance to win a little money.

“Hopefully we have a lot of future DifferenceMakers here,” he said.