Chemistry doctoral student wins sixth annual Pirate Entrepreneurship Challenge

In 2019, East Carolina University graduate student Elizabeth LaFave was analyzing samples for the Country Doctor Museum in Bailey.

The relationship soon revealed the museum was suffering the effects of COVID-19 with few patrons.

That experience inspired LaFave to create Invenire, an app that presents virtual tours of small museums helping grow their audience and expand their reach beyond those within driving distance.

This innovative thinking led her to a first-place finish in this year’s Pirate Entrepreneurship Challenge (PEC), sponsored by the Miller School of Entrepreneurship, where she was awarded $15,000 in prizes and in-kind services.

After competing against five teams representing three ECU colleges with ideas ranging from technology, clothing, fitness and social enterprises, Invenire won the night and a chance to “elevate small museum content by bringing it to the front,” LaFave said.

To add to her challenge winnings, an anonymous donor awarded Invenire an additional $15,000, and she will have another $15,000 in optional equity investment available to her.

ECU Chancellor Philip Rogers said, “I don’t know if there’s a better example on our campus right now that brings together multiple disciplines where students can generate new and big ideas that they can then commercialize at some point in that experience. … This really exemplifies the epitome of what our innovative future-focused campus looks like.”

LaFave leaned on her role as an innovation ambassador in ECU’s Office of Licensing and Commercialization, where she helped develop business plans and presentations based on creating a unique digital experience — Invenire — for the Country Doctor Museum. Subsequently, in spring of 2022, she participated in the I-Corps@ECU program, which allowed her to grow that idea by conducting customer interviews that eventually revealed that other small museums were suffering.

This was the third time LaFave participated in the PEC and pitched Invenire to a panel of judges with the hopes of winning the cash prize of $15,000.

“This large pool of (winnings was) unexpected,” said LaFave, a Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences student majoring in chemistry. “I’m going to have a lot of excited collaborators with our museums.”

Additional awardees

Two additional awardees left the PEC with cash prizes for their business ideas. College of Business student Katie Rowland took second place and $10,000 for her company Fosterline Support, an organization that creates a universal background check process to find short-term, affordable childcare for foster families. College of Health and Human Performance student Jennifer George won third place and $5,000 for her company Flourish Mind and Body, an integrated physical and mental wellness space for victims of sexual assault. PEC sponsors Red Shark Digital and Radiate Prints also awarded George $5,000 and $1,000, respectively.

Allison S. Danell, dean of the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, receives the Challenge Cannon, awarded to the dean whose student won the Pirate Entrepreneurship Challenge. The cannon will stay at Thomas Harriot until next year’s Pirate Challenge.

Allison S. Danell, dean of the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, receives the Challenge Cannon, awarded to the dean whose student won the Pirate Entrepreneurship Challenge. The cannon will stay at Thomas Harriot until next year’s Pirate Challenge.

“The needs are many here in eastern North Carolina,” said Dennis Barber III, acting director of the Miller School of Entrepreneurship. “What we saw during the finals reflects how our students can play a role in meeting those needs.”

To select the winners, PEC leaned on a panel of judges who know firsthand what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. The judges for this year’s finals included:

  • Vern Davenport ’81 — partner, QHP Capital
  • John May ’93 — managing partner, CORE Industrial Partners
  • Sonja P. Nichols — president and owner, Southern Lion, LLC and member of the UNC Board of Governors
  • Grant Smith — current ECU student and former PEC winner

“It’s amazing what this university is doing and the amount of forward-thinking that’s going into the College of Business,” May said. In October 2022, May served as the keynote speaker at the COB’s Business Leadership Conference.

“I think they (participants) did a wonderful job,” Nichols said. “I was extremely proud of them for their willingness to get up in front of all of these people to expose themselves and their idea to the critical thinking and critical eyes.”

“As the ideas continue to grow, so does the challenge’s impact on the participants,” said challenge organizer David Mayo. “Our goal next year is to increase the cash prizes and provide mentors for the second-round participants.”

Mentors for this year’s finalists were Ryan Butcher, a serial entrepreneur; Miller School; Tyler Lumely with the Small Business and Technology Development Center at ECU; Robby Carney with Duelboot Partners; Taylor Walden with Simple and Sentimental; and Grant Edwards, a fractional chief financial officer. This year’s finals marked the first time all three winners were women, and all came from different colleges.

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