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Sustainability, education, mental health and other top startup ideas from Pittsburgh teens

Watch the pitch competition that served as the finale of Innovation Works' Startable program, awarding students in web and product design after eight weeks of work.

A Startable pitch competition product design winner, Kenzy Miles Piersaint.

(Screenshot)

Beyond giving local students early exposure to entrepreneurship as a potential career pathway, Startable provides a landscape of what problems are top of mind among future founders.

The Innovation Works program¬†held the final event for its summer 2021 cohort this week. Launched in 2015, Startable is a free eight-week session for local teenagers that teaches entrepreneurship as they learn to build businesses and products of their own. Open to students ages 13 through 19 in Allegheny County and other nearby counties, Startable gives participants a chance to not only practice soft business skills like networking and pitching, but also hard design skills like 3D modeling or drafting. Like last summer, this year’s program was held entirely online.

Following the eight weeks, Startable students have a chance to present their pitches and products at the final event, which features competitions in web design and product design, giving students a chance to win some money to continue growing their ideas after the program ends. First-place winners receive $1,000, while second place wins $900 and third gets $800. But even students outside of the top three win smaller amounts of funding to keep moving their ideas forward. And importantly, students retain full ownership of their projects, enabling them to further their businesses free of intellectual property constraints.

In a prerecorded session that aired live on Wednesday evening, the top three students for each competition category — web design, plus product design for students age 15 and under and product design for students age 16 and older — shared full pitches for their business ideas, many of which had already launched with customers. The pitches included an overview of the idea, plans for future growth, a brief business model and a background on each founder sharing the personal motivation and experience for the idea.

Watch the full event via Startable’s YouTube, or read on to learn about the winners:

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Many of the businesses and products stemmed from learning and engagement concerns for students going through middle and high school during the pandemic as well as some broader issues commonly tied to Gen Z, like more urgent worries over climate change and mental health.

Among the top three winners of the web design category were:

  • A student-led one-on-one tutoring service
  • A DIY kit to spark student interest in STEAM and the environment
  • A service-minded student community meant to bridge social and educational gaps caused by remote learning

Beyond explaining the motivation behind the business in the pitch, the founders also shared detailed cost analyses, social media engagement tracking numbers and concrete future plans like becoming LEED certified or registering the business with the state.

The top three winners of the younger division in product design also shared impressively advanced and well-planned ideas, including:

  • An identification bracelet for autistic children in case of emergency
  • A machine learning-powered garden to help black thumbs become green ones
  • A build-your-own personal computer kit

And the older division winners:

  • A shampoo hairbrush to benefit people with dandruff
  • A reusable reading annotation tool
  • A customizable fidget band bracelet to reduce anxiety

Though these student ideas aren’t necessarily a perfect prediction of startups to come, they do show how widespread thoughts about online education, sustainability and openness around mental health are among the younger population today — trends we’ve seen growing among adult-run startups here too.¬†But perhaps most important is the exposure Startable gives students to solving problems through a business idea, a vital step in continuing to build Pittsburgh’s innovation community from the ground up.


Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments. -30-
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