Sophomore Sam Ybarra Awarded First Place in Furman’s Venture Pitch Competition

GREENVILLE, S.C.—An intense process that started in November with 80 students vying for a chance to compete in Furman University’s first annual Paladin Pitch competition culminated Saturday, Feb. 22, with a first-place win by Sam Ybarra (Class of 2022) at one of the largest-attended pitch competitions in South Carolina history.

More than 500 people were gathered in McAlister Auditorium when the judges announced Ybarra would receive $10,000 for “Spectrum Tiny Homes,” a company that would build and sell tiny houses designed for young adults living with autism.

“We plan to address the sensory needs that ordinary housing doesn’t, like lighting, sound and other over-stimulating aspects,” Ybarra said, adding that individuals with autism spectrum disorder are, on average, more likely to live at home post-high school and college graduation than people with other disabilities. “We believe that Spectrum Tiny Homes will be a solution to this lack of independence, while simultaneously addressing the needs that our customers have.”

He emerged victorious from a field of six finalists, who had spent four months working with Furman Innovation and Entrepreneurship to develop their pitches for Paladin Pitch.

Lucas Bautista ’22 came in second and received $5,000 for “Instant Lawn Care,” a landscaping tech business, while Trent Stubbs ’20 was awarded third place and $2,500 for “Aconabolics,” a company he started with Professor of Chemistry Greg Springsteen that produces molecules critical to a medical testing procedure.

Other finalists were Queen Trapp ’22 for “Mother Nature’s Gift,” Mercy Fisher ’21 and William Wagner ’22 for “Table Tour” and Nicole Stephenson ’20 and Kyle Edens ’20 for “Scales & Tails.”

Furman Innovation and Entrepreneurship organized the competition. Judges were Brandy Amidon, mayor of Travelers Rest and co-president of Brains on Fire; Jeannette Brewster, owner of Jean B. & Co. and Community Manager for Village Launch; Laura Corder, managing director of the South Carolina Department of Commerce’s Office of Innovation; Mark Metz ’85, serial entrepreneur and founder of ReluTech; Steve Johnson ’73, investment manager at SC Launch; and Jorge Palacio, innovation and marketing designer at Professional Tool Products.

Also in attendance were Furman Innovation and Entrepreneurship partners SCBIO, Upstate SC Alliance, Greenville Area Development Corporation (GADC), NEXT, 6AM, VentureSouth, Build Carolina and Village Launch.

“Furman is quickly becoming a leader in innovation and entrepreneurship and a convener, and they’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re stronger together as a state if all of the innovative and entrepreneurial entities collaborate,’” Furman Innovation and Entrepreneurship Executive Director Anthony Herrera said. “They want to help support those student ventures, either funding-wise or by exposing them to their portfolio of companies or clients or partners that could help accelerate the growth of these pitches.”

Herrera added that the three Paladin Pitch finalists that weren’t among the winners have generated as much – if not more – interest from the investors.

“Over the weekend I had an alum commit $20,000 in additional funding for one of the teams that didn’t win, and two (Furman) trustees have committed to start an investment fund to invest in student pitches and, specifically, to a team that didn’t place,” he said. “In addition, an alum reached out to me to invest in Lucas and take his venture to the Charlotte (North Carolina) market. It was moving. Some of us are kind of in shock, not only over how well the students pitched and the quality of ideas but how well they were received and the opportunities that are coming out of it.”

Herrera also noted the diversity of the majors represented Saturday – religion and sustainability sciences (Ybarra), psychology and women’s gender and sexuality studies (Trapp), creative marketing (Fisher), biology (Wagner), chemistry (Stubbs), information technology (Stephenson), music (Edens) and Spanish (Bautista).

“This is The Furman Advantage through the lens of innovation and entrepreneurship,” he said. “Entrepreneurship is not a job or a title or a major – it’s a mindset. We haven’t even scratched the surface … This is going to be a year-round process of working with students to launch ventures that will impact our community.”