Big winners for Big Ideas Challenge

St. Paul's GreenHouse.

Winners for Big Ideas Challenge.In a pitch competition designed to elicit big ideas in the areas of health and wellbeing, it was only appropriate that the judges used creative thinking to adjust the awards to fit the pitches.

EyeCheck, a for-profit company that uses smartphone technology and proprietary hardware to provide much-needed vision assessment with just two pictures, was selected on March 30, 2015 as the best pitch and most promising idea.

Third-year international development and business student, Rachel Friesen, who works as EyeCheck’s Social Impact Analyst made the winning three-minute pitch, citing both the tremendous need for optometry support to eliminate preventable blindness in the developing world as well as the applications of their technology in Canada.

“Eyecheck had the strongest pitch and was clearly past the ideation phase,” said St. Paul’s GreenHouse Director, Tania Del Matto. “The judges decided to award EyeCheck the prize of the Market Validation Canvas (valued at $500) along with four hours of mentorship through the Accelerator Centre, assistance that Eyecheck will greatly benefit from, given the stage they are at in their business.”

"EyeCheck's growth is hugely due to the amazing mentorship that we have received,” said Friesen. “The opportunity to receive mentorship through the accelerator is invaluable for our continued growth. After the presentation I felt a wave of joy and emotion, as the journey of Big Ideas had truly pushed me as an individual, so for it to be over was wonderfully overwhelming, but I felt a wave of pride as I believe I represented EyeCheck well."

EyeCheck was among nine finalists, chosen from 12 groups of students who expressed interest after the Big Ideas Challenge for Health and Wellbeing was launched by the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences and GreenHouse in October 2014.

“The Big Ideas Challenge for Health and Wellbeing was intended to encourage undergraduate students to develop innovative interventions, for which the primary purpose is to improve the quality of life of individuals or communities,” said Del Matto.

“We were really happy to provide a platform for these entrepreneurs and were really pleased with the quality of submissions,” said Karla Boluk, Assistant Professor of Applied Health Sciences, who along with Del Matto chose the finalists and coordinated the challenge.

The nine finalists went through a training program that took them from idea to more articulated innovation. Training included both mentorship and a series of three workshops, supported by Communitech’s ASCEnt (Accelerating Social Cause Entrepreneurs) program, including a funding and financing workshop by RBC, a storytelling workshop and a pitching workshop.

Beth Bailey, program manager of the ASCEnt program, said “The Big Ideas Challenge was a huge success. It was amazing to see students progress from the start of the program to now. I was glad to see their companies get good recognition and we were thrilled to work alongside GreenHouse, our program partner in making this happen.”

A panel of five judges—Howard Armitage (Special Advisor to the UW President on Entrepreneurship); Tracey Robertson (Strategic Lead in Innovation, Ontario Trillium Foundation); Andrew Jackson (VP of Client Services, Accelerator); Christina Marchand (Co-founder of Full Soul Canada); and David Paul Borcsok (Fund Manager, RBC Generator)—considered and provided feedback to the nine pitches.

Judging was based on the creative nature of the innovation, the impact of the idea and the ability of the idea to solve the identified problem, ease of implementation, consideration of necessary resources, and articulation of the problem identified.

David Paul Borcsok of RBC said, “The RBC Generator Fund works to foster entrepreneurship at early stages to help people with great ideas get to the next level. This Big Ideas competition included amazing examples of students applying their skills and training to real issues, many of whom had a personal connection with the issue they were addressing.”

The grand prize--a term in St. Paul’s GreenHouse program including free residence accommodation for the Spring 2015 term (valued at $2,990 per student)—which RBC provided for an individual or team of up to four students was instead split between four different teams:

  • Marlena (@marlenabooks) – Fourth year Health Studies student Rachel Thompson, who named the organization after her grandmothers Marilyn and Helena, is committed to meaningful leisure for older adults of all abilities by creating books to meet the needs of older adults with Alzheimer’s, dementia and other conditions. Thompson says, “I'm hoping a term at GreenHouse will propel Marlena forward, taking us from the idea stage to the implementation stage. I hope to walk away with a solid business plan and strategy to penetrate the market.”
  • Panic, Anxiety, & Stress, Support (PASS) kit – Third-year AHS student Tina Chan and her business partner are developing what they call “a first aid kit for mental health and wellbeing” to address the increasing incidence of mental health issues among students. Looking forward to her term at GreenHouse, Chan says she hopes it will include “mentorship and connections with experts who will guide the development of our product. I also hope to gain exposure and kickstart an idea into a business.”
  • Heart Helpers – Fourth year kinesiology student Tara McNicholl conceived of Heart Helpers as a non-profit, heart-healthy meal delivery program that offers older adults at risk or living with cardiovascular disease a simple, inexpensive way to reduce their risk factors by modifying their diet. McNicholl said, “GreenHouse really made me understand that no idea is too small, and any problem we’re passionate about can be solved with some innovation, critical thinking and team work. I received some great constructive feedback from the judges and gained the confidence to overcome my fear of public speaking.”
  • Node – Node is a company offering smart, beautifully designed, custom fit compression sleeves for breast cancer survivors suffering from lymphedema. Fourth year kinesiology student and Node founder Benny Hua says, “I'm shifting the focus on what happens after cancer. The vision of Node is not only to empower those with lymphedema, but to use GreenHouse as a platform to raise awareness to a voice that needs to be heard.” Hua adds that he had already rented out his apartment for the spring so he only had a plan A: to stay at GreenHouse.

Del Matto says, “Our hope is that other students within the Applied Health Sciences will be inspired from the nine start-ups that pitched their big ideas. We need more entrepreneurs making a difference in community development, social justice, and health and wellbeing."

For more information on the Big Ideas competition, visit this site.


- Susan Fish is a Waterloo-based writer who operates Storywell, an editing company, and who has two published novels (Seeker of Stars and Ithaca).

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