News and Public Media for North Central Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

UF student business competition deadline nears, $25,000 prize at stake

Courtesy Warrington College of Business
Courtesy Warrington College of Business

University of Florida students have until Dec. 15 to sign up for the opportunity to win $25,000 in the 2024 Big Idea Gator Business Plan Competition.

Shelby Thomas, a Ph.D. student at UF, won the first-place prize of $25,000 in the 2023 competition, along with the $1,000 Best Social Impact and Sustainability prize for her company Coastal Resilience Solutions.

“I started a nonprofit the first year of my program, and as I got further down the line, I realized I should have made it more of a company,” Thomas said. “So, I started a company for-profit that complements the nonprofit.”

It was because of this company that Thomas started taking business classes and discovered the Big Idea Gator Business Competition. Thomas said she decided to apply in spring 2023 in hopes of getting more funding for her new for-profit company.

Thomas ended up winning $26,000 in total. While several thousand dollars of the funds went toward registering Coastal Resilience Solutions with the state of Florida, Thomas said she gained much more than just money through the competition.

“I’d say the more value comes within some of the networks in the audience,” Thomas said. “A lot of them are actually previous UF grads that are successful with a variety of their own businesses, so I think that was the most valuable thing for me.”

The competition started in 2002 as a small scale business plan competition only focusing on Warrington College of Business students. In 2008 the competition became known at the Rocket Pitch Challenge, said Jamie Kraft, the director for the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center at UF.

“After the financial challenge of 2007-2008, private donor support was curtailed,” Kraft said. The competition morphed into a simple pitch competition and was managed and run by the student Entrepreneurs Club.”

The competition was relaunched in 2013 as the Big Idea Gator Business Plan Competition and became what it is known as today. This can be attributed to the return of financial support and the competition becoming open to UF students stemming from a multitude of majors, said Kraft.

“We were ready to take it to the next level, something bigger and better with more money being offered,” Kraft said. “We launched the competition with the goal of trying to help support student entrepreneurs to try to help them move their ideas forward.”

A set of external judges are selected and invited to judge the final rounds of the competition. Many of these judges are UF alums who now run successful businesses, such as Jesse Eisner, the chief operating officer and co-owner of Spotlight Energy.

“We’re really looking for totality; there is no finite answer as to which thing is more important,” Eisner said. “As a matter of fact, that’s a discussion among the judges every single year, and the reality is it’s up to the judges each year to determine that answer.”

Many of these judges stem from different business backgrounds, giving them all different perspectives, said Jason Alpert, senior vice president at Wells Fargo and a finalist judge since 2019.

“You have people who have built their own business that have been entrepreneurs, you have bankers and you have marketing people,” Alpert said. “You’re bringing a lot of folks that have different perspectives and understanding.”

Eisner added it is this variety of judges that makes the competition even more exciting.

“I actually like collaborating with the judges because they have some interesting insight,” Eisner said. “The judges are so spread out in what their levels of expertise are that usually someone can give some broader insight as to whether that idea has merit.”

The Big Idea Gator Business Plan Competition doesn’t just bring out a unique selection of judges. Alpert said the competition showcases talent from all over campus.

“The thing that I love about this competition is that it really brings out the best that the University of Florida has to offer,” Alpert said. “We really get to see the knowledge, the ingenuity and the creativity of the students across campus.”

Skye Perry, founder and chairman of the board of SSP Innovations and finalist judge for the past two years, added that his favorite part of the competition is the social afterward, where entrepreneurs and voters have a chance to interact directly with the student competitors.

“They have a program like this that has come so far in the last couple of decades that is allowing students to learn but also to build actual businesses,” Perry said. “Practical real things that might turn into a career for them.”

Kraft noted the two main factors that students need to succeed in this competition: plenty of research and thick skin.

“You’re going to have a lot of people on the way that will question you, that will ask questions and you’ve got to have some level of ability to be coached and take that criticism,” Kraft said.

The critique received from judges and mentors is one of the most appreciated aspects of the competition, Thomas added.

“I think that was the most valuable thing for me. It was just meeting a lot of people and successful entrepreneurs. I’m still connected with some of the people I met there from more of a mentorship perspective,” Thomas said. “That is probably the biggest aspect that I was thankful for.”

UF students must register by Dec. 15 and can submit their intent to compete or join a team at the competition website.

Savannah is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing