Humboldt County Office of Education: INNOVATE! Business Challenge Awards Youth Start-ups

INNOVATE! Business Challenge Awards Youth Start-ups

INNOVATE! Business Challenge Awards Youth Start-ups

Five Humboldt County High School students competed in the first virtual INNOVATE! Business Challenge Finale with $9,000 in prize money and $750 in media services awarded to support the development of their businesses.

Due to COVID-19, the INNOVATE! Finale was produced in a video, which premiered on the Humboldt County Office of Education (HCOE) website and through a Facebook watch party on May 21. More than 300 people tuned in to watch the students pitch their ideas to judges in Humboldt County’s very own student version of ‘shark tank.’

The INNOVATE! Business Challenge is a high school competition designed to promote entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation. In phase one, students were challenged to create and submit business start-up ideas as 60-90 second video elevator pitches. This year, 136 ideas were submitted. Judges reviewed and scored all the videos to select 50 top ideas to move into phase two.

The 50 semi-finalists were then challenged to develop viable business models, identify their target customers, and calculate how to make their ideas profitable by answering 13 key business plan questions. During phase two, judges had the difficult job of selecting only five final concepts to present in the finale to compete for cash awards.

An important aspect of the competition is preparing the students for the real world of business. This year, local experts volunteered their time to provide virtual workshops designed to help refine student ideas into a viable venture. Coaches provided advice on product development, branding, value proposition, preparing an income statement, determining start-up costs and capital needs, as well as short and long-term planning. The advice introduced business practices that the students could adapt to their business models.

Each finalist had a 15-minute window to pitch his/her idea and answer questions from a panel of four judges via zoom. The judges had the difficult task of deciding which finalists had the most dynamic concept and how best to support their start-up needs.

In the end, Jude Ortega, a sophomore from Arcata High School took the top honor, winning $2,500 in cash and a $500 media package for his business, Jude’s Reusable Sandwich Bag.

Chandler Mrotzek, a junior at Alder Grove Charter School was the first runner up, winning $2,000 in cash and a $250 media package for his business, SAVI Assistant. Elias Surber, a senior at Eureka High School, won $1,750 for his business, Rooty Glassworks. Samantha Gleave, a senior at Six Rivers Charter High School took home $1,500 for her business, Pet Portraits. Caleb Weiss, a junior from Northcoast Preparatory Academy won $1,250 for his business Bayside Advertising Solutions.

Judges included Victoria Bennington from Bicoastal Media, Jennifer Budwig from Redwood Capital Bank, David Fisch of Fisch Drilling and Kyle Visser of Shred Aware.

Innovate Program Lead, Karen Brooks states, “This year is a life lesson in being resilient. The semifinalists worked through difficulties to develop their businesses and persisted to find a way to be successful!”

Program sponsors include The Headwaters Fund, US Bank, Redwood Capital Bank, Bicoastal Media and the Humboldt County Office of Education.

“Given our current reality, the term ‘innovate’ could not be more appropriate,” states Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Chris Hartley. “Creating and developing solutions to new challenges defines the work of students, mentors, event planners, judges and our communities. The fact that this event continued during 2020, is an absolute testament to the resolve and tenacity of our community and serves as a model for innovation across all sectors. Congratulations to all our students.”

For more information about the Innovate Business Challenge or other HCOE innovate programs, please contact Karen Brooks at (707) 445-7563 or, or visit the website at

Watch the finale video below: