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From donuts to drones, student entrepreneurs pitch ideas at ‘Spark! Tank’ event

Senior Abbi Daniels won $1,000 for presenting her business plan, an artisan donut food truck.

Liberty University senior Abbi Daniels is a foodie who loves the personal side of business. She appreciates the story behind a successful enterprise and aims to become a small business owner.

Currently, Daniels, a business administration major, is hoping to open an artisan donut food truck called Dawn & Dusk.

“College students want the artisan experience,” she said. “We want high quality in little things. So, I was thinking: How could we bring that in the simplest of ways? We’ve already done that with coffee, why not with donuts? doing what chefs are doing but with something as simple as a donut.”

Daniels had an idea, but required some direction in developing a business plan.

Alex Barker has been working in law enforcement since graduating from Liberty with a degree in criminal justice a year and a half ago. Now he’s working toward a Master of Business Administration. At heart, however, Barker is an entrepreneur. His passion for business and appreciation for law enforcement led him to a cutting-edge startup: Artemis Systems LLC. He and his business partners, seniors Devin Freitas and Will Hungerford, are developing drones and operating software to make law enforcement tasks, such as search and rescue, more efficient and cost-effective. They are also touting their products for use in mission relief work, including delivering medical supplies to remote areas.

Alex Barker showcases a drone prototype during his Spark! Tank pitch.

Commercial drones are expensive and run on batteries that drain quickly. Artemis has developed a gas-powered drone that can travel 200 miles per hour and last four hours in the air on less than $2 worth of fuel. To boot, the vehicle is being created with replaceable parts — easily 3D printed — to keep the maintenance overhead low.

“At the end of the day, what we are selling is the ability to save lives faster and cheaper,” Barker said. “It is about helping people.”

Both Barker’s and Daniel’s projects benefitted from one-on-one professional mentorship through Spark!, an eight-week incubation program through Liberty’s Entrepreneur’s Center.

The extracurricular program is open to students of any major. Burgeoning student entrepreneurs meet regularly with a mentor who is either a faculty member or a community entrepreneur. Students formulate a business plan, talk with potential customers, and try to determine if their business plan is viable.

“You refine, refine, refine until you get to the point of determining whether you have a company or product or not,” said Jonathan Whitt, Liberty’s vice president of special projects and business engagement. “If you don’t, it’s OK, but at least you didn’t waste six months of your life. It’s a real lean, quick way of trying to stand up a company, and we walk them through that process.”

Judges (from left) were Corey Davis from Woods Rogers Edmunds & Williams, Cheryl Valentine of Consolidated Shoe Company, and Scott Hicks, Liberty’s vice provost for graduate education.

Students are also connected with executives in their industry and experts on topics they might not think about, such as law or regulation.

“The incubation program really helps you get those connections and pushes you,” said Barker, who has even met with Google representatives. “It pushed me into a world where I never thought I would have met some of the people that I have. It has been super helpful, personally and within the company, really pushing us to think about things that you won’t think about when you start a business.”

Daniels said the program has helped “fast track” her idea. She has avoided “learning the hard way” while trying to apply her classroom knowledge.

“Being able to talk about my thoughts, to rein them in and also bring them out and highlight things has been invaluable,” she said. “You don’t get that in a classroom.”

All of this semester’s participants had an opportunity to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges Friday night in the Montview Student Union for a chance at a $1,000 prize to grow their business. The pitch-off mimicked the format of the popular television show “Shark Tank.” Judges were Scott Hicks, Liberty’s vice provost for graduate education; Corey Davis, attorney at Woods Rogers Edmunds & Williams; and Cheryl Valentine, director of sales and marketing at Consolidated Shoe Company.

Judge Cheryl Valentine congratulates Gordon Heinrich on being selected for a runner-up prize funded by the judges themselves.

In the competition, Daniels emphasized the relational angle of her business plan: “I’m not just selling donuts; I’m creating memories and developing relationships.”

It worked. She won the grand prize, which will allow her to renovate the truck she already owns. She is hoping to open for business as early as next semester. Judges were not only sold on her idea, but her branding as well — suggesting that she has the potential to franchise.

But the judges were so impressed with Liberty’s entrepreneurs that they awarded a runner-up prize — another $1,000 out of their own pockets — to senior human resource management major Gordon Heinrich, who is patenting a tool he believes will revolutionize the stone masonry industry. Heinrich himself is a longtime mason and through his work discovered a tool that helps him reduce waste and, therefore, save costs. Lancaster Tool Co., his company, is already working with manufacturers to get his product to market.


  • Spring 2018 applications for Spark! are being accepted through Jan. 1, visit Liberty.edu/Startup for more information.


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