Education major Olivia Antonelli ’20 won $5,000 and first prize in the Robert K. O’Brien ’58 Next Big Idea competition for her plan to create Simply Green Vending , an eco-friendly way to dispense laundry detergent on college campuses.
“With our compact, solar-powered vending machine design, paired with a reusable container, the customer can obtain a high quality, environmentally friendly detergent for an affordable price while ridding the need of single-use plastic,” Antonelli said during her pitch to the contest judges on Thursday, April 30.
Business major Laura Martinez won $2,500 and second place for her plan to create a culturally inclusive financial literacy curriculum  for college students. Liberal studies major Payton Collins won third place and $1,000 for Coco Gear , a streetwear brand focused on bringing a unique style to clothing and accessories.
The WooChoice award for best video and $250 went to Evan Sterling and Josh Reinstein for their humorous portrayal of why students need Vodaily , an app that helps students easily access their daily schedule, stay up to date on assignments, and find answers to common questions about campus events.
The six finalists gave their pitches through a live Zoom conference call, which included more than 60 viewers and participants. Each one gave a three-minute pitch, and then responded to questions from the judges: John Esler, founder of Esler Companies, and member of the advisory board for the Center for Entrepreneurship; Craig Bovaird ’77, founder of Built-Rite Tool & Die/Reliance Engineering and member of the Worcester State Foundation Board; and Brenden O’Brien, son of contest founder Robert K. O’Brien ’58 . Steve Dorval, Worcester State’s Entrepreneur in Residence for 2020, moderated.
This is the seventh year of the competition , which was created as a way to inspire students to start entrepreneurial ventures and promote inventiveness. The semester-long project attracted 28 entries to take a novel idea, develop a business model for it, and pitch it in a “Shark Tank” format.
O’Brien, who has served as a judge for the past three years, noted the overall high quality in this year’s entries, saying he saw “by far the most innovation and intellectual diversity among the ideas. We just saw a tremendous outpouring of imagination,” he said.
Prize money was dramatically increased this year, thanks in part to a gift from the Esler Family Foundation, combined with a grant from Santander Universities.
The Robert K. O’Brien ’58 Next Big Idea competition is one of several events offered by Worcester State’s Center for Entrepreneurship. The center provides a variety of academic, co-curricular, and experiential learning opportunities for students from all majors to explore innovation and the entrepreneurial mindset. For more information and to explore available scholarships and venture funds, visit https://www.worcester.edu/Center-for-Entrepreneurship/ .