500+ high school students plus college students from across North Dakota took part in NDSU’s “Nice Leap” and Innovation Day 2020 programs.

Late last year, North Dakota State University showcased its inaugural virtual competition for 8th- through 12th-graders: NDSU Innovation Day 2020. At the same time, its Nice Center hosted a “Nice Leap” competition for undergrad and graduate students. I grew up in North Dakota—having participated in an entrepreneurship program there and graduated from the University of North Dakota with a degree in Business—so, I was excited.

Like most of our readers, I’m all for innovation. And I’m really pleased with the state’s progress on this front. North Dakota Innovation Day has been 20 years in the making, with Innovation Centers popping up in places like Grand Forks and Fargo. It truly is wonderful to see programs like this one come to life so fully and to persist despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s the way you launch a thriving statewide startup ecosystem! North Dakota and NDSU’s efforts give all of us a clearer picture of what’s possible and what’s to come when innovative young minds are given room to thrive and are nurtured. An event recap follows.

H.S.-Level Challenge

More than 500 high school students from across North Dakota participated in the overall Innovation Day 2020 challenge. Five teams representing five different schools or districts were then invited to present their projects online: Watford, Barnes, Strasburg, Wishek and one virtual cohort. That last group, for me, embodied what I find to be an exciting opportunity.

Many smaller communities exist across the state which, individually, may not have enough students interested to compete in a statewide competition. With an increasingly virtual economy, though, collaborating with other students online to complete a project offers great leadership and project management experience those young locals can carry with them into their careers.

Several interesting ideas stood out. With respect to health care—the focus of the Winter 2021 edition Digital Unicorn (available at Issuu.com)—one team had developed an innovative retail concept for bridal and prom shops. Given coronavirus concerns, they designed both a layout and a service concept which made trying on dresses safer, more convenient and more efficient.

The quality of ideas and leadership steps participating students took at such a young age were impressive. All five teams got an award and a cash prize. The winning team? The virtual cohort.

College-Level Challenge

How far would you leap to solve a persistent problem? The NDSU college-level competition was run through its “Nice Leap” program. Participating groups spent three months working on short-term projects. The final five at the undergraduate level had devised two medical solutions, a smart commercial controller, a single-use plastics sustainability project and Find-a-Friend.

I found that last one particularly interesting, since it leveraged an idea I had while I was in college 20 years ago! You can read more about that in our Winter issue, where I discuss the intersection of mental health, “A.I. friends” and related technology. [Editor’s Note: See Steve’s Publisher’s Letter.]

Whereas the high school students had competed for awards, cash prizes, leadership skills and notoriety. The college students were clearly eager to explore fundraising so they could move on to the next phase of development. The “Orion” project, a toolbox for improving lung cancer therapy, finished first in the graduate category.

The “Cardiopulmonary Biosensor” team took top honors among undergrads, using biosensors to identify cardiopulmonary disease. The team had put together a strong prototype and was seeking funds to build out v.1. A replay of the entire competition, leadership discussions and info on related NDSU programs are available at TheNiceCenter.org under Programs & Events.

Jump straight to the recap HERE.

The Nice Center at NDSU

The Nice Center is more than an innovation hub for NDSU. It serves the Greater Fargo area and North Dakota at large. Several of its programs were specifically designed to spur innovation statewide. Those especially worth knowing about and modeling one in your home state after:

  • Nice Mentor – pairs college students with mentors
  • Nice Start – helps launch crowdfunding campaigns
  • Nice Alumni – taps alumni skills, education and experience
  • Nice Idea – promotes innovation among young entrepreneurs
  • Nice Leap – equips attendees with skills, community and a mission (10-week course)
  • Co-Starters – accelerator-type program with three cohorts: social, new American and women entrepreneurs (16-week course)

These types of programs have already proven successful in large tech hubs like the Bay Area, Austin, Atlanta, etc. No doubt they will lead to the creation of innovative startups across North Dakota, helping it retain statewide talent in the form of the thousands of college students who graduate each year. Learn more at NDInnovationDay.com and TheNiceCenter.org.