What’s The Big Idea?

The man in the gray suit faced the roomful of college students, gestured toward the large screen displaying a PowerPoint slide that detailed the global population during the next century, and asked, “How are we going to feed the people of the future?”

He smiled and turned his attention to the four entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who had joined the class discussion this chilly February morning in Middlebury’s Kirk Center.

“The solution,” the man confidently said, “would be insects.”

And with that, Alexander Bea, a Middlebury senior, launched into his presentation for Bumu (short for BugMunch), a project that would harvest the nutritional value of insects to feed growing populations.

Bea was one of eight finalists competing for the lofty title “Next Big Idea” in a competition that was part of the ultra-intensive winter-term course MiddCORE. (The CORE stands for Creativity, Opportunity, Risk, Entrepreneurship.) At the beginning of the term, all 30 students in the two sections of the course were told they would be challenged to design a social or commercial innovation. “The innovation,” the guidelines stated, “may be a new good/service, a new way to deliver an existing good/service, or a creative solution to a social problem.” During the course of the term, the students teamed up with mentors to cultivate their ideas, and at the end of the period they each made their pitch to a panel of judges; eight advanced to the final. (It should be noted that the competition was just one small slice of the MiddCORE experience. For more, see middcore.middlebury.edu.)

In addition to Bea, the finalists pitched ideas such as a website that would provide a better way to statistically predict outcomes for fantasy football; YouPower, a fitness center that produces electricity; a line of sweet and savory fruit spreads; and a forum and support network for athletes who have suffered brain traumas.

Each presenter was challenged by the panel (“Do these distribution models work?” “What does success look like?” “I’d like to hear more about two things—where will the big adoption happen and what is the story that you’ll tell?”), and after all had made their pitches, they then waited for the judges to make a decision.

“I’m looking for the big idea, but also an idea that is real—a big idea with wind in the sails.” Ernie Parizeau was the first to speak. The five judges had crowded into a small office filled with books piled on every conceivable surface. “The winner should be someone who, we are fairly confident, will actually implement his or her idea.”

“But then are we in danger of the challenge morphing into the biggest real idea?” countered Paul Bottino ’87.

And so it went for the next several minutes as Parizeau, Bottino, Greg Wiebolt, Adam Greenberger ’93, and Marc Randolph (Suzie Reider ’87 and Rocki-Lee DeWitt judged the earlier round but were unable to attend the final) debated the merits of the eight finalists. In the end, there was a clear-cut, unanimous winner (see “A Beautiful Mind”), while Zannie’s Zing: Sweet Savories by Suzanne Calhoun ’14 grabbed runner-up honors.

Alexander Bea hasn’t given up on Bumu, though. With true entrepreneurial zeal, he applied for—and was one of five students to receive—a $3,000 grant from the College’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship to pursue his idea. There just might be crickets on the menu, yet.

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