SAN ANTONIO — Students participating in the SA Smart Challenge rose to the occasion of finding solutions to combat the digital divide which was amplified across the city due to COVID-19. EPIcenter, a nonprofit energy innovation hub with a well-known and successful Energy Incubator and Accelerator program, was called upon to help bring the ideas to reality.
“We wanted to make sure every citizen can benefit from the digital revolution,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. “With the help of the students participating in the SA Smart Challenge, we can find ways to get fast internet connections to everyone in San Antonio for education, talking to City government, or doing business.”
In the SA Smart Challenge, students in grades 7-12 are presented with a San Antonio-specific smart city problem. They in turn must propose a strategy, product, or service as a solution. The goal is for students to learn what it means to live in and help develop a smart city. This year students formed teams, worked with mentors, and presented their ideas to support digital inclusion during a pitch competition held in May. The judges found the presentations to be impressive. Upon recognizing an absence of structure that provided a transition for the student teams to further develop their solution, CPS Energy and Itron turned to EPIcenter as part of their social responsibility efforts with the Smart Energy Education (SEE) initiative. CPS Energy, Itron, and EPIcenter have been collaborating under the SEE initiative to improve energy-water literacy, inspire innovation and talent, and create a positive economic impact in the San Antonio community and beyond.
“CPS Energy came to EPIcenter to help create a structure that teaches and empowers the students to take their pitch from the ideation phase to the implementation phase,” Chief of the EPIcenter Energy Incubator and Accelerator Andi Littlejohn said. “We treat these student teams as startups and help develop their leadership skills, creativity and confidence through coaching, mentorship, connections and curriculum to give them a taste of running a true startup business.”
Three student teams were selected for the six-week program. The student teams meet with a group of mentors, known to the teams as its board of advisors, once a week. A teacher sits in on these meetings in addition to EPIcenter staff. One team is currently enrolled, and the second team (made up of first-year college students) will enroll in an accelerated three-week program over winter break. The third team will enroll in Spring 2021.
After the six-week program concludes, the student teams will decide if they want to move forward to “sell” their idea to a “customer.” EPIcenter will schedule a meeting with prospective customers for a “pitch.” If the organization wants to implement the team’s idea, EPIcenter will help the team develop a process that works for the students and the organizations.
“EPIcenter is honored to play a role in the SA Smart Challenge to further develop the next generation of entrepreneurs,” EPIcenter CEO Kimberly Britton said. “The program is another way the City’s leadership and business communities are coming together to not only build the next generation of our workforce but to reinforce San Antonio’s reputation as a strong, resilient and innovative city.”
This student-training pilot program conducted by EPIcenter is made possible with financial support from SEE. It is designed to create a potential pipeline toward employment with CPS Energy and Itron. All students, including those in the pilot, are encouraged to apply for the Itron/CPS Energy Smart Energy Education Scholarship.