Chicago-Kent Student Takes "Pitch@IllinoisTech" Competition's Top $30,000 Prize for Urban Farm
Access to fresh, healthy, culturally relevant food can be severely limited on the South Side of Chicago, something Ashley-Marie and Gyasi Sutherland found out firsthand when the couple moved to one of its neighborhoods.
Through those lived experiences, they came to realize that one solution to this issue was growing their own organic produce.
That insight also sprouted an idea for an urban farming business, one that got a significant boost on Friday, June 11, when Gyasi and Ashley-Marie’s HEIRS Farm startup took home the top prize at Pitch@IllinoisTech, a student-run business plan competition.
Ashley-Marie, a rising third-year law student at Chicago-Kent College of Law, and Gyasi received $30,000 for winning the virtual competition hosted by Illinois Institute of Technology student organization Intinium and the university’s Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship.
“Thank you all so much for this opportunity,” Gyasi said after the winners were announced late Friday afternoon. “It’s exciting to win, but we really see this as a foundation for what we’re about to build for people who really need it. Hopefully this can be something that grows something so much bigger than us.”
HEIRS Farm was one of five finalist teams that earned the chance to pitch in front of a panel of judges who have experience working in the entrepreneurial and startup ecosystem. All five teams were participants in Kaplan Institute’s inaugural Membership Program during the spring 2021 semester. The startup accelerator provided lessons about entrepreneurship and connected each team with mentors who have expertise in each team’s area of focus.
HEIRS Farm’s core is providing healthy, culturally relevant food to those who don’t have access to it on the South Side of the city. The business will grow African diaspora produce with the intent to sell it to consumers via doorstep delivery and to wholesalers in the neighborhoods on the South Side. To ensure that they serve their communities as well as possible, HEIRS Farm will provide flexible payment options and will host educational programs and community events.
Starting with its original community garden, HEIRS Farm will gradually grow its operation through a microgreens pilot and, ultimately, an aquaponic operation that it will build.
Phyesta, led by Patrick McInerney, Sam Kalenowski, and Mitchell Lucky, took second place in the competition and won $15,000. Their startup is focused on building an immersive 3D online physics simulator that provides students and teachers with a platform for physics labs. Phyesta also won the fan favorite vote, picking up an extra $300.
Led by Katja Berthold, Naia Lum, and Harshini Chellasamy, FuturEd finished third and took home $5,000. FuturEd has developed a peer-to-peer training system that partners with universities to teach students how to learn through training provided by fellow students.
Two other teams earned a spot in the Pitch@IllinoisTech competition, finalists among the 25 teams that took part in the Membership Program. ONEBIT—led by Omar Hernandez, Amber Handal, Daniela Montiel, Nishant Pathare, Vanessa Gutierrez, Soham Satam, Zhenyu Zhou, Sean Lee, Ron Duran, and Lenny Ramroop—has built a platform that allows independent and small restaurants and retail businesses to manage their sales and expenses in one easy-to-use dashboard. Kolosseum, led by John Wolf and Jack Critzer, has created a daily fantasy sports platform for eports and gaming, similar to fantasy football.
Intinium, an Illinois Tech student organization that aims to inspire others to pursue what they are passionate about, and Kaplan Institute combined to host the third Pitch@IllinoisTech competition. This year’s event featured guest speakers—including Kaplan Institute Executive Director Maryam Saleh and Illinois Tech Provost Peter Kilpatrick—and an alumni panel. Chicago-Kent Trustee Richard Levy '97 contributed to the funding of the competition.