On Friday April 7th, faculty, staff, students, and alumni gathered to watch teams of students be thrown into the SwatTank. In the fifth annual SwatTank, four groups of 2 to 3 students presented 4 minute pitches about business proposals they had prepared and answered 15 minutes worth of questions from judges and the audience. Following the pitches, the judges deliberated and handed out prize money: $3,000 for first place, $1,500 for second place, $500 for third place, and $250 for fourth place.
This year, first place was SwitchBoard, a social media platform. Switchboard was followed by New Dae Farms, a cricket farm; Collab, which created on-site child care in co-work spaces, and Zing, which wanted to add solar paneled chargers around campus, respectively.
Although the innovation competition is the big event for SwatTank, the process really begins in October with Innovation Incubators where students begin to think about their ideas and start working on their business plans. Over the following months, the students work with the Center for Innovation and Leadership, Career Services, alumni mentors, and many others to create an in-depth business plan for their idea.
“At a glance, SwatTank is just an innovation competition. You come up with an idea, you pitch it, see what kind of traction you get with that idea, and I think all of that is true, but the skills that the students are honing in this process are a lot more than that,” said Director of the CIL Katie Clark during her opening remarks at the competition. “The range of skill sets is public speaking, it’s design, it’s building relationships, working on a team, figuring out how to market a complicated idea, so that other people believe you and buy in, and the students have done a really good job of doing that this year.”
President Valerie Smith also spoke at the beginning of the event, and emphasized how events like SwatTank demonstrate the values of a liberal arts institution.
“I believe that teaching innovation is a seamless fit with the liberal arts because the process naturally develops many of the skills that a liberal arts education is meant to cultivate. Most significantly, liberal arts colleges and universities have as their main mission the goal of teaching students to think critically, to write and to speak persuasively, to solve problems, and to work in collaboration with others,” said Smith.
Smith also identified both preparing for the unexpected and helping form productive and responsible members of society as liberal arts goals that SwatTank helps to accomplish.
The first group to present was Zing, which included Gus Burchell ’20, Natasha Markkov-Rizz ’20, and Roman Shemakov ’20. Zing aimed to bring solar powered charging stations to college campuses to help improve student quality of life and to promote green energy.
“I think through this process the main thing I’ve learned at least is the importance of being able to pivot and being able to be flexible and not being married to these ideas. We started off as a Ukrainian micro-finance firm. So I think we were just really open to this isn’t going to work let’s try something else,” said Markkov-Rizz.
Next to present go was Collab, which was established by Seimi Park ’20, Michelle Ma ’20, and Meiri Anto ’17. This group’s business plan was aimed at providing on-site child care at co-working spaces such as We-Work to make it easier for women to go back to work after having children and to lessen the resume gap that often happens after women have children.
“I think a lot of what coming up with a good business model is about integrating multiple perspectives you have to think about what will solve the social justice problem, gender equality, but what would make sense for the users the parents, and also what would be profitable for the business partner, you have to satisfy all of the different people involved and that’s a lot of what Swarthmore teaches us is about multiple perspectives,” said Anto.
Third was SwitchBoard founded by Eric Wang ’18 and Michael Piazza ’17. SwitchBoard is a social media platform run through text message that connects subscribers to one another anonymously.
“Switchboard is a text message service that allows Swatties to vent and make new friends anonymously, like SwatDeck but from your phone. WE officially launched the night before our SwatTank competition and saw a ton of user engagement right off the bat. 1850 messages have been sent as of today! What’s next for us is to get more students using the service and implement features that help people pair up,” said Wang.
Last to present was New Dae Farms which consisted of Max Rogow ’20, and Haverford students Joseph Leroux ’18 and Rebecca Fisher ’18.
Rebecca Fisher (Haverford) 2018, Joseph Leroux (Haverford) 2018, Max Rogow 2020 New Dae Farms’s business plan was to develop cricket farms at Swarthmore and Haverford to help contribute to the research for alternative protein sources.
“I think that we’ve had a lot of moments where Joey and Max and I have looked into each others eyes and been like are we going to be the cricket farmers like are we going to do that is that really what our education has lead up to? And the answer is yes. … I think a lot of this process has been figuring out what piece of the puzzle that we each want to play what plays to our strengths and what plays to how we can contribute to a team,” said Fisher “And Swarthmore and Haverford are great but I think a lot of how you get this far at elite liberal arts colleges is learning how to work really great by yourself and I think this process really, I can speak for myself but I think it’s true for everyone standing up here, was really taught me how to collaborate.”
In her opening remarks, Clark noted how this was the largest SwatTank yet with ten teams and around 30 students participating in the first round. Later she noted that although she was happy more people participated, the larger participation made the first round of competition harder to judge.
“This year, the hardest part was, I sit in as a judge in the first round. So we do a first round in February. So there were ten teams that went through [the] first round this year, and I know that the program is going well because we were fighting over who was going to go to the second round,” said Clark.
She noted that she wishes more teams could go onto the final round given all the hard work they have put into the project up until that point.
Clark enjoys working with SwatTank, and believes it helps students add to many aspects of their education including how to verbalize ideas in clear and persuasive ways, how to work effectively on a team, how to commit to a project, and how to fail fast and pivot. Her favorite part of the is the students’ growth in the passion and knowledge throughout the competition.
“My favorite part is really I see them on day one and then to see all the work that goes on all of the passion that sort of shines through and for them to pitch in that four minutes the competition. I get to know how far they’ve come, so that’s my favorite part. They’re polished, they answer questions with remarkable poise, they’re excited, they have a real clear idea of what they think and what this project really is,” said Clark.
This was the fifth SwatTank, but according to Clark, the programming has changed a little bit every year. Although some things like the alumni mentor to help fill knowledge gaps and the inclusion of a report in addition to the pitch have stayed the same, the format of the program has changed quite a bit. It started with an Entrepreneurship Club where students presented ideas at the Lax Conference on Entrepreneurship for a smaller cash prize. In the third year, SwatTank got their own conference, and in the fourth year, they added the Business Model Canvass.
“We also shifted the language to be more of an innovation competition as opposed to a business plan competition. Part of that had to do [with the fact that] we don’t require extensive financials that a business plan does. We’re really thinking about the innovation competition as an ideation competition, how good is this idea, did you test the idea, and is that an idea that will work, is it viable,” said Clark.
In the future, Clark helps to grow the program to include more teams, more alumni, more networking opportunities, and a larger cash prize to allow students to take their ideas to the next step.