Students pitched sustainable businesses Friday at the first Eco-Innovation Challenge during a UF Earth Day celebration.

The contest was open to any UF student who had an idea for a benefit corporation, which upholds social and environmental sustainability. Sixteen groups applied, and six were chosen as finalists.

Finance senior Meng Liu, 22, and political science senior Michele Ramirez, 22, worked together to design and pitch the winning idea. They pitched SignUp as a nonprofit that would connect American students studying in China with volunteer opportunities at disadvantaged migrant schools in Beijing.

SignUp will receive $500 and work with GatorNest, a UF program that supports startup companies and gives students hands-on experience in solving problems companies face.

The pair lost points because their idea is a nonprofit.

The six finalist groups met in Hough Hall to deliver their pitches to a panel of three judges. Bill Rossi, a UF entrepreneurship professor; Matt Hintze, founder of TutoringZone; and Chad Paris, founder of Parisleaf Printing and Design asked the students questions about their five-minute presentations.

Shay Barnes and Rebekah Foster came up with Full Circle, the second-place idea, which would give certificates and advertising on the Full Circle website as incentives for restaurants to donate leftovers to the hungry.

Alex Hilbert’s idea, Urban Tree, placed third and won $100. Urban Tree would be an elaborate vending machine, eventually powered by solar panels, stocked with local fresh produce and placed in areas where people need easier access to fresh food.

The other three finalists had ideas for a sustainable food cart, a bicycle-powered generator and a guide that would help recycling facilities restructure to increase profits.

Professor and Director of Sustainability Studies Leslie Thiele came up with the idea for the Eco-Innovation Challenge as part of his program, Greening Gator Footprints, which mentors student leadership teams that work to promote conservation on campus. One of the teams was created to plan and host the event.

“I was really impressed by the caliber of the pitches,” said Kerry Stern, 20, an economics junior and member of the Eco-Innovation leadership team.

TutoringZone’s Hintze was impressed, too.

“I didn’t expect so many really outstanding ideas,” he said. “The scope makes me say, ‘What the hell was I doing at age 21?’”

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