Wednesday, March 17, 2021
  Community, Awards and Recognitions

By Letty Fernandez

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – The inaugural Big Idea Competition hosted by the UTRGV Center for Innovation and Commercialization (CIC) brought together students, faculty, alumni, and community members to pitch innovative startup ideas to a panel of judges.

Held Wednesday, March 10, the virtual competition marked the center’s first event since being named a Blackstone Launchpad in January 2021.

Nine finalists deemed to have the best potential to commercialize competed for $7,000 in total prize money. Awards went to the teams with the top overall ideas and to special category team winners. More than 100 people in the virtual audience watched the competition.

“The participants did a phenomenal job. The ideas were well thought out,” said Laurie Simmons. director of the CIC.  “No matter what ultimately happens with the ideas, we hope the experience and knowledge gained through the competition will be of benefit to them long after the event.”


Dr. Isaac Choutapalli, professor in the UTRGV Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Dr. Xiaoqian “Naomi” Fang, assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Science, UTRGV School of Medicine, took first place for their project, “PowerGen Pitcher.”

“We are very excited to have won the Big Idea Competition, as well as the Green Innovation subcategory,” Choutapalli said. “We are planning to use the prize money to bring this product into the market in the next few months.”

The product, the PowerGen Pitcher, is a high-efficiency, pulsed-flow cooled thermoelectric generator that can provide electricity to charge electronic devices and power LED lights and fans day or night, rain or shine, when other modes of power are inaccessible.

“We are also very grateful to the UTRGV Center for Innovation and Commercialization for giving us this opportunity to pitch our idea,” Fang said. “We want to build on this momentum and launch our company soon.”


Placing second in the Big Idea Competition was Shelby Bessette, manager of the UTRGV Coastal Studies Lab and a UTRGV alumna, for her project, the South Coast Oyster Company. 

In third place was Evan Garcia for his project, called “Odigus,” which was also voted the audience favorite. Odigus is an online platform where guides can share their outdoor activities and adventurists can find experiences that meet their needs.

“With Odigus, we’re looking to be the solution for people who want to get outside and find meaningful outdoor experiences in the world,” said Garcia, a graduate student in disaster studies and program manager for the UTRGV School of Medicine’s Department of Family and Community Medicine. “The competition was an excellent experience and I felt a great sense of accomplishment. It demonstrated to the Odigus team that there is interest for our idea.” 

The Social Entrepreneurship Award went to Jorge Trujillo and Katie Lavallee of Weaving Food Webs Community. Trujillo is a lecturer in the UTRGV Department of Biology and Lavallee is a research assistant in the School of Earth, Environmental, and Marine Sciences.

In all, 46 teams from throughout the region applied for the March 10 competition. Those 46 were composed of 38 UTRGV student teams, three faculty teams, one UTRGV staff employee team, one UTRGV alumni team, and three Valley community member teams.

Eighteen reviewers evaluated the submissions and narrowed the competition pool to 10.

Simmons said The Big Idea Competition was a good way to encourage and support new ideas from the region. 

“Through our center and our competitions, we hope to help the next generation of entrepreneurs turn great ideas into great businesses and grow the economy of our region,” she said. 

Watch the Big Idea Presentations: 


Director, Center for Innovation and Commercialization / 956-665-3908 


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.