'American Idol For Nerds' Pits Inventors' Business Plans

Georgia Tech has what some call an American Idol for Nerds. It's a competition to encourage undergraduates to invent usable items. Winners of "InVenture" get $15,000. Students must not only have a shiny invention, but also a marketing and business plan. This is the second year the college is having this competition. Susanna Capelouto of Georgia Public Broadcasting reports.

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Call it "American Idol" for young inventors. This week in Atlanta, undergrads at Georgia Tech competed for cash prizes, as the school honored its most innovative student inventors.

Georgia Public Broadcasting's Susanna Capelouto reports.

SUSANNA CAPELOUTO: The audience settles in at a concert hall at Georgia Tech. In the front row, a group of people hold up drumsticks.

Mr. DAVE VADEN: Whenever Sarah come down, we're going to hold them up in the air and go, yeah. Go, Sarah.

(Soundbite of drumsticks)

CAPELOUTO: This is the cheering section for Sarah Vaden, led by her father, Dave. Sarah is one of eight finalists for the $15,000 InVenture prize. She invented a drum that changes pitch while you play it.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

CAPELOUTO: On stage, Sarah has to convince the judges that her drum is something people want.

Ms. SARAH VADEN (Drum Inventor): I actually believe that drums speak louder than words, so Im going to go ahead and demo it and Ill let you guys hear for yourself.

(Soundbite of drums)

Ms. VADEN: One drum, one sound. Let's put some engineering creativity and maybe a little pep into it.

(Soundbite of drums)

CAPELOUTO: Sarah uses a pedal to pump air into the drum while she plays.

The event has the feel of an "American Idol" show. And thats intentional, says Craig Forest, one of the Georgia Tech faculty members who came up with the idea.

Professor CRAIG FOREST (Georgia Tech): We were trying to think of a clever way to change the culture here on campus so that more students were thinking about starting companies, were thinking about taking a quirky idea from their dorm room or their lab and bringing it out and showing it off in a big nerd fest.

CAPELOUTO: The competition drew 300 entries, ranging from a French press that keeps coffee from turning bitter to a baseball cap that measures brain waves and can warn driver when they get drowsy.

Some of the inventions were more related to college life.

Mr. MATTHEW HICKEY (Co-Inventor, Koozie Cooler): My name is Matthew Hickey. I study mechanical engineering here at Georgia Tech. My team invented the Koozie Cooler and it cools a beverage faster than a refrigerator.

CAPELOUTO: Ten minutes faster, in fact. And Hickey says it's portable. To win the competition, however, students need more than just a neat product, says Craig Forest.

Prof. FOREST: Bright and shiny robots are cool. But to win the InVenture prize, it's got to be a real idea, something that people want, something that people will pay for.

CAPELOUTO: This year's grand prize winner was a product called Omega Wear. It's a shirt with weights in it that athletes can use for strength training. Sarah's drum finished second, and she still got $10,000 - not bad for undergraduate.

Georgia Tech wants to expand this competition to include other universities and foster more creativity among college students nationwide.

For NPR News, Im Susanna Capelouto in Atlanta.

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