Student Incubator Accelerates Opportunities for the Mayor’s SA Smart Challenge Winners

Published : Thursday, May 13, 2021, 11:40 am
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Students from the John Jay High School Science & Engineering Academy recently completed the Spark it Up Student Incubator presented by EPIcenter as part of the SA Smart Challenge. Middle and high school teams across San Antonio proposed solutions for the 2020 theme of combatting the digital divide, so greatly amplified across the city during the pandemic. EPIcenter, a nonprofit energy innovation hub with an Energy Incubator and Accelerator program, was called upon to help the students advance the winning ideas towards actual implementation.

The SA Smart Challenge, a cooperative effort among the San Antonio Mayor's office, the San Antonio Museum of Science and Technology (SAMSAT), Communities in Schools - San Antonio and other community partners, challenges students to develop solutions to address real world problems facing the community. The “Spark-it” Team from Jay won third place for its solution to create accessible Wi-Fi hotspots within low-income communities and to promote digital inclusion initiatives that already exist through the San Antonio Public Library.

Partners and sponsors of the SA Smart Challenge were so impressed by the Jay and other winning teams’ proposals that they wanted to help the teams further advance their ideas. Challenge sponsors CPS Energy and Itron turned to EPIcenter through their joint Smart Energy Education (SEE) initiative to pilot a mentorship-based program to do just that.

“EPIcenter was asked to create a structure that teaches and empowers the students to take their pitch from the ideation phase to the implementation phase,” Chief of the EPIcenter Energy Incubator and Accelerator Andi Littlejohn said. “These student teams were treated as startups and received support to develop their leadership skills, creativity and confidence through coaching, mentorship, connections and curriculum to give them a taste of running a true startup business.”

The student teams were enrolled in a six-week program that included a workshop, speakers and a group of mentors specifically curated for each team. Jay’s “Spark-it” Team took the advice of its board of advisors and underwent additional customer discovery with key partners such as the City of San Antonio. By meeting with the City’s Office of Innovation the team learned that some of its ideas were in the process of being implemented. The students’ zip codes were not part of the areas included for these services, however. The students are now leveraging their new understanding of the market landscape to advocate for their zip codes to be included in digital inclusion initiatives.

“The teams that participated in EPIcenter’s Spark it Up Student Incubator were treated like real startup companies and learned how hard it is to carry an idea through execution to implementation,” SAMSAT Chief Learning Officer Cliff Zintgraff, Ph.D., said. “This real-world experience will benefit students through the ways they have learned how to make connections, advocate for themselves and value the contributions of mentors. Many students were offered internship opportunities through their mentors’ companies and are continuing to be mentored as they move into college.”

The Spark it Up Student Incubator presented by EPIcenter will proceed as part of the 2021 SA Smart Challenge prize package thanks to underwriting from the Smart Energy Education program. The 2021 theme is “food insecurity;” the finals of which will take place in late May.

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