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Benedum grant fuels WVU efforts to promote entrepreneurism via IgniteWV

Three male students make a presentation to a crowd in front of two screens.

Student entrepreneurs make a pitch during the 2023 West Virginia Business Plan Competitions in Wheeling. WVU is revamping the contest — now called IgniteWV — with grant support from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. (Submitted Photo/West Virginia Department of Commerce)

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West Virginia University is renewing efforts to promote prosperity in West Virginia with a new statewide competition that challenges promising entrepreneurs and empowers them to succeed.

The Encova Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the John Chambers College of Business and Economics is launching IgniteWV with $200,000 in grant support from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. The program, which evolved from the West Virginia Business Plan Competitions hosted previously by WVU, strives to provide budding entrepreneurs with the education, skills, contacts and motivation necessary to create viable start-up companies in the Mountain State.

“Small businesses are vital in building a strong and diverse economy in West Virginia for the future,” Tara St. Clair, program director for the Encova Center, said. “By equipping West Virginians with entrepreneurial skills and funding, we’re building a sustainable pipeline of entrepreneurial talent to support our local communities.”

IgniteWV is open to anyone interested in registering or growing a business in West Virginia. The competition features two tracks — one for Main Street, community-oriented businesses that need technical assistance funding, and another for technology and innovation-focused businesses that are seeking investment. The competition cycle begins each fall, with initial entries due in January. A select group of business professionals will review 90-second pitch videos and any supplemental materials provided to choose the top five entries in each track.

Unlike traditional pitch competitions, the 10 finalist teams will receive specialized training, customized coaching, and other resources before making their final pitch during Bridging Innovation Week, the state’s premier entrepreneurial event. The 2024 Bridging Innovation Week festivities — which include educational workshops and conferences, networking events, showcases and competitions — are slated for April 8-11 in Huntington.

St. Clair said the goal of IgniteWV is to boost entrepreneurial activity in West Virginia by increasing participation in the competition, the number of successful businesses launched and grown through the competition, engagement in Bridging Innovation Week activities and more.

“West Virginia is a state rooted in entrepreneurial history. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 98% of all employers in the state are small businesses and they serve as the powerhouse of our economy,” St. Clair said. “We are so grateful for this generous support from the Benedum Foundation, which is a catalyst for IgniteWV and future economic growth in West Virginia.”

The grant funding will be divided over two years and provide support for staffing, marketing and promotion, training and mentorship, live competition and technical assistance awards.

Named for the son of Mountain State native and oil and gas industry businessman Michael L. Benedum, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation provides grant funding to projects and initiatives throughout West Virginia and Pittsburgh, two places Benedum and his wife Sarah called home during their lifetime together.

The Benedum Foundation has provided millions of dollars to WVU programs and projects that enhance the quality of life for West Virginians, including the West Virginia Business Plan Competitions, which launched many successful businesses over their 16-year history.

“The Benedum Foundation has been a strong supporter of the work of the West Virginia entrepreneurship ecosystem and was one of the original funders for the Business Plan Competition,” said Bill Woodrum, senior program officer for community and economic development with the Benedum Foundation. “The addition of specialized coaching and training makes IgniteWV stand out among the myriad pitch competitions we see. The program serves to build the whole entrepreneur not just provide a short-term source of funding.”

The Benedum Foundation grant was awarded through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the University.



Senior Communications Specialist
WVU Foundation

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