The Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition started in 2012, with the $50,000 prize awarded annually, coming from an endowment funded by Rick Sontag, an alumnus of the University of Nevada, Reno, who achieved financial success as an entrepreneur.
To get started in his first business venture, Sontag needed to raise $50,000, and this proved challenging. This experience “set the target” for the amount of the annual award, as well as the donation required to fund an endowment that could provide an annual $50,000 award into perpetuity.
“The most important thing about investing in the next generation of entrepreneurs on the University of Nevada, Reno, campus is that it’s the way of building the next generation of leaders for our country,” Sontag said in 2021.
In 2023, we reached out to some individuals who previously were finalists in the Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition. One told us: “The Sontag Competition reflects a great culture of opportunity and philanthropy that is unique to UNR that I have not seen at other institutions. Participation in the competition reinforced these ideas, facilitating my achievements with graduation from the school of nursing, and post-graduation, service to the community as a critical care nurse at Renown. I have not pursued a degree in business, (and) instead have obtained my (medical doctorate) and am currently training as a cardio thoracic surgery resident.”
Another said: “My participation in the Sontag competition was the single-most rewarding and enriching experience I had as a student at the University of Nevada, Reno. What started out as a class project with friends turned into a passion and a tangible business, and Sontag helped us lay that foundation. It forced our group to address the needs of the company and legitimize our ideas until we had something we were proud to present. Besides working on the business side of things, we also got a great lesson in public presentations. These skills are invaluable to me today.”
The Sontag Award ($50,000) and the Dragonfly Energy Innovation Award ($10,000) are wonderful, and we are so appreciative of Rick Sontag and Dragonfly Energy for their generous financial support. However, in my opinion, the highest value of these awards is that they provide the “bright shiny objects” that cause students to self-select to enter the competition, to invest huge amounts of time and energy, and to come away from the experience with skills, perspectives and ways of thinking that they might not otherwise have—skills that help them be effective leaders.
The Dragonfly Energy founders competed in Sontag in 2014, but did not win. However, subsequent to the competition, they launched a Reno-based company manufacturing lithium iron-phosphate batteries and doing cutting-edge battery research, and the employ around 170 people. The founders of Dragonfly Energy valued the Sontag experience and have provided the $10,000 Dragonfly Energy Innovation Award annually since 2021.
A total of 26 teams submitted an intent to compete in the 2023 Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition, comprised of 41 students representing 16 different majors from five different schools/colleges within UNR.
There were four stages in the competition prior to the Sontag finals, during which 20 judges/coaches evaluated and provided feedback to the teams, sharing the wisdom from their experiences. The Ozmen Center for Entrepreneurship has an overriding criterium for engaging community volunteers to judge and coach these teams: We want people who have personally experienced the entrepreneurial journey.
Finalist teams that did not win cash awards included:
Adventure Provisions: Adventure Provisions is a company that seeks to deliver high-quality dehydrated meals that cater to a wide range of dietary restrictions (like vegan/gluten-free, etc.). The current product lineup includes five different meals. Each product is ready for consumption after only a few minutes in hot water. The current target markets include individuals with an interest in outdoor recreation, as well as other markets for “ready to eat” nutritious meals. Founder: Sierra Hixson, behavioral psychology.
Sierra Hixon possesses a very important trait that isn’t evaluated in the Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition—perseverance!
Robo Spect: The Automated Robotic System for Bridge Inspection is a product developed to aid or replace the human aspect in ordinary bridge inspections. It is being marketed as a less-expensive, faster and more-effective alternative to either human labor or other existing robotic systems used for bridge inspection. This system is able to handle complex structures through its use of advanced sensors and unique designs of the units themselves. Founders: Son Nguyen, doctoral candidate in computer science and engineering/robotics, and Stephen Lencioni, School of Medicine.
Son Nguyen has a little more work to do to get to a commercial-ready version of his equipment and software, but he definitely has some extraordinary technology.
Trellis: Trellis is creating an employee-training software that seeks to effectively instill cognitive thinking and reasoning skills that are important in maintaining a safe/secure workplace environment. The program puts the user through a gauntlet of situations where they are given varying levels of information and then asked to either find a solution to the problem, or identify that they do not have enough information to properly proceed. The initial primary market identified by Patrick Smith and his team was workplace safety. Founder: Patrick Smith, doctoral candidate, psychology.
The potential applications for this technology are vast. Next steps will involve commercial validation of the technology in specific applications.
The Dragonfly Energy Innovation Award Winner: TRYBE Summits, an outdoor team-bonding/training company that was created to instill a sense of community among people through the use of stressful situations that build mental and physical fortitude while teaching the importance of collaboration between peers. The main customer base for TRYBE Summits is business teams in the Nevada/California area, with the secondary customer bases being CEOs/executives and other high-performance individuals (police, fire depts, medical staff, etc.). TRYBE Summits utilizes a highly trained team of individuals from varying backgrounds to bring the most authentic and effective experience possible. Founder: Keaton Lynn, MBA.
Keaton Lynn has a passion for this business that was completely obvious to everyone who saw his final presentation.
And finally, the Sontag Award Winner: Mimirs Well-Ness. The Neonatal Femoral Protector is a product designed to lower the chance of injury or death during circumcision through its appliance. The Neonatal Femoral Protector protects the otherwise-unprotected vital organs and arteries near the surgical site of a circumcision. It is being marketed as a high-value, relatively inexpensive safety device to medical practices, potentially across the world. Founder: Bridget Martinez, MD, Ph.D. in endocrinology, Ph.D candidate in Basque studies.
Dr. Martinez is representative of the students who compete in the Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition. Typical competitors are working full-time, going to school as full-time students, have family obligations—and, on the side, are creating a new businesses. One has to wonder how they do so much. In addition to being a medical doctor, Dr. Martinez has a Ph.D. in endocrinology. Because she was here in Reno, and the program looked interesting, Dr. Martinez is working on her doctorate in Basque studies.
Dick Bartholet is the director of the Sontag Entrepreneurship Competition.