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GSU and Ocean Exchange launch BIG Pitch
Contest to draw collegiate innovators from all over
062315 BIG PITCH 01
Georgia Southern University President Brooks Keel, left, and Ocean Exchange CEO Millicent Pitts seal a deal for the new BIG Pitch Competition. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

The BIG Pitch Competition announced Tuesday by Georgia Southern University and the Ocean Exchange may resemble the TV show “Shark Tank” but should be less ego-bruising.

It might also look a little like Georgia Tech’s InVenture Prize, but will be open to students from many universities, not just one.

As partners in the contest, Georgia Southern and the Ocean Exchange will be offering a $10,000 prize for the best pitch for a business-related new idea from teams of student innovators. This competition, BIG for the Business Innovation Group at Georgia Southern’s City Campus, will conclude with awards at the Ocean Exchange’s fall event in Savannah, where the nonprofit organization already awards two $100,000 grants annually in a similar competition for early-stage businesses.

 “We just made official one of the largest business pitch competitions in the Southeastern United States,” said Dominique Halaby, director of the Business Innovation Group. “So, to the folks in Florida and Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina and the rest of the states, too bad.”

After getting some intended laughs with that, he said the contest is open to them all.

“Just  like the Ocean Exchange’s big platform is to encourage the adoption of sustainable technology or programs, and they get competitors from all over the world, we anticipate the same thing but on a collegiate front,” Halaby said in an interview.

Organizers are already hearing interest from places such as Wake Forest, Ohio University, Penn State, McNeese State University in Louisiana, the University of Texas at El Paso, and Algonquin College in Canada, he said.


Keel and Pitts sign

GSU President Brooks Keel and Ocean Exchange CEO Millicent Pitts signed the contest into reality at the City Campus on East Main Street.

There, renovations are underway for offices of the Business Innovation Group agencies: the Small Business Development Center, the Center for Entrepreneurial Learning and Leadership, and the Bureau for Business Research and Economic Development. All operate under the auspices of the GSU College of Business Administration.

Next door, construction is slated to begin within a few weeks for the new Innovation Incubator and Fab Lab, with funding from a federal grant and other help from the city of Statesboro. The fabrication lab as such won’t be ready use before this year’s BIG Pitch awards, but the university’s president observed the connection between the two as means to promote innovation and new business.

“The winning entrant of this competition will show excellence in teamwork and underlying business acumen and the possibility to be scaled up into a startup company,” Keel said, “and that really is what this business incubator that you’re in today and what we’ll see next door is going to be all about.”

The first BIG Pitch prize will be awarded Oct. 11, on the first evening of the three-day Ocean Exchange event in Savannah. This is the fifth year that the Ocean Exchange, a nonprofit corporation which Pitts described as an “accelerator” for turning “transformational solutions” with global potential into realities, has hosted Solutions Awards.

“We do it all under the big umbrella of sustainability, and when we talk about sustainability we talk about improving economies, health and the environment, reducing waste, reducing the use of natural resources, and improving productivity,” she said.


Gulfstream & WWL

Ocean Exchange’s leading sponsors are Savannah-based Gulfstream Aerospace and Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics, a Scandinavian shipping company with a Savannah presence. Other major supporters, who help pay for the annual event, include Georgia Power, the Georgia Ports Authority and the Savannah Economic Development Authority, Pitts said.

But Gulfstream funds the $100,000 Gulfstream Navigator Award, while Wallenius Wilhelmsen funds the $100,000 WWL Orcelle Award. These go mainly to owners of new and developing businesses, who not only make a pitch to the judges but are required to make a working prototype.

For the BIG Pitch collegiate prize, a working prototype will not be required.

“The BIG Pitch will be our third award,” Pitts said in an interview. “It will be, of course, focused on the collegiate innovator. The other two awards are focused on early-stage companies, somewhat more advanced.”

Pitts acknowledged that she has seen “Shark Tank,” the ABC show where inventors and small-business owners pitch their ideas to a panel of potential investors.  The way the Ocean Exchange awards work is “a little bit” similar, she said, but the intent more serious.

“And friendly,” said Pitts. “We’re there to help them, not tear them down.”

More about the contests can be found online at

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.


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