The Spartan Agora: Class Competition Seeks to Fund the Next Great Student Idea

In the CAS 114 “Creativity and Innovative Entrepreneurship” course, students pitch ideas in the Spartan Agora for the chance to make them a reality.

It starts with an idea.

Something that solves a consumer need, something new, bursts to life — and the thinker starts down the path to make it real. They consider the team it will take, the resources, the cost … and it is here that many ideas and budding entrepreneurs wither on the vine.  

For those with neither the funding nor a wealthy relative to beseech, persuading a millionaire stranger to invest in their idea may be their best shot at bringing that idea to market. Fans of the show Shark Tank (or its international predecessors Money Tigers and Dragons’ Den) are familiar with the concept: enter the Tank, try to convince the Sharks to part with their cash … if you dare.

Saltwater predators are scarce at best on the banks of the Red Cedar, but Michigan State University has its own vehicle for entrepreneurial ventures: the Burgess Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, powered by the top-ranked Broad College of Business.  

… And an idea bloomed at ComArtSci.

Creativity and Innovative Entrepreneurship

Ross Chowles, academic specialist and professor of practice in the Department of Advertising + Public Relations, spent decades running his own advertising business before he started teaching at MSU.

He’s known for his understanding of how to motivate people and his unflinching approach to creativity.

“The thing about an ad agency is … in my 36 years I dealt with thousands of companies, from mom-and-pop stores to huge corporations, from retail to fashion, to food, to cars,” Chowles said. “You get this window into business, and ways business works; management techniques, decision making, strategy and consumers.”

Weeks before the Fall 2022 semester began, Chowles was approached to add CAS 114 “Creativity and Innovative Entrepreneurship” to his teaching lineup — a match he described as a perfect fit. The course is a requirement of the Minor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, open to undergraduates of all majors and academic colleges. It is also the fastest-growing academic minor at Michigan State.

“This whole course is about getting out of your comfort zone,” Chowles said of CAS 114. “Which is intellectually easy to absorb, but hard to do.”

Right away, Chowles noticed something about the roughly 400 students pursuing a much broader range of degrees and careers from his creative crowd. A course graded around subjectivity was a challenging concept for many, especially for STEM students — an academic situation where the opinion of someone, or a group of “someones,” could deem something successful.

“They want absolutes; they want to know exactly how to come up with a good idea,” he explained.

But there is no secret formula, no calculation for it. In fact, Chowles advises his students to not bother taking notes in CAS 114. “I want them to feel it. I want them to absorb the notion that entrepreneurialism is like … you are either the driver or you’re the passenger. Do you want people to control life for you, or do you want to control your own life? And that they can come up with ideas.”

Chowles assigns the class two idea-driven tasks each week to get those gears turning. The first is to write a letter to themselves describing their perfect future workday. For the last task, students must answer a question for themselves: am I an entrepreneur? It’s not meant to be a trick question, and there is no correct answer.

Grades are instead determined by three major projects spread throughout the semester. The first, focused on innovation, requires students to consider an existing product and how it could be improved. “The second project is answering a consumer need — needs, wants, hopes, desires, dreams, fears, anxieties, whatever,” Chowles said.

And the delivery for that project is a Shark Tank-style video.

The Spartan Agora

Leading up to the second semester Chowles led CAS 114, he was approached by another creative thinker: his boss.

Teresa Mastin came and said to me, ‘How can we make the course … zing?’ I said, ‘Well, let’s make it real.’ As soon as you try and make it more real, then the adrenaline pumps,” Chowles rationalized. “So, I said to her, ‘Let’s do a competition, and let’s get alumni to judge. I’m sure that alumni would love it.’ My prediction was true.”

To assemble a panel of alumni judges, Chowles partnered with Matthew Jones, assistant director of alumni relations at ComArtSci. “Ideas like this are perfect for alumni volunteers and a great way for our office to collaborate with a faculty member. I thought it was an awesome idea,” Jones said.

Jones sent an email to ComArtSci alumni, providing a link to sign up. Chowles hoped around 80 alumni would answer the call; in the end, over 120 volunteers had committed.

Of course, the competition needed a catchy title.

“I was trying to find something along the lines of ‘The Sharks,’ ‘The Dragons’ …  all I could get to was ‘The Agora,’ which is the open space in Ancient Greece where democracy evolved — but it also was a marketplace and sharing of ideas,” said Chowles.

The final piece making the Spartan Agora real was plugging in MSU’s Venture Creation program. Enter Ken Szymusiak, managing director for academic programs at the Burgess Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Ross reached out to me about upping the ante a bit with the ideation sessions he was running with CAS 114,” Szymusiak said. “To create more excitement and present a potential future where the students’ ideas could really come to life while also engaging alumni.” Szymusiak was in full support.

Now that the team was assembled, Chowles created a site to host videos from the class. Entering the competition was optional, though each student was still required to complete the video project for a grade. Once the students’ videos — about 150 — were submitted for judging, alumni got to work scoring the projects. From each class, four ideas with the top scores surfaced, ready for the next step: a feasibility study with the Burgess Institute.

Video playlist: The top Spartan Agora projects from each section of CAS 114, Spring 2023.
Watch on YouTube

Discovery and Potential

All eight projects are currently undergoing that review with Szymusiak, who plans to involve MSU MBA student groups as well. After the feasibility study is complete, the top eight will enter the Agora again for a final voting round with the alumni judges.

Two finalists — one from each class section — will enter the Burgess Institute’s Discovery Program, where Szymusiak said they will develop a prototype or experiment to help test the company viability and receive a scholarship to offset the anticipated expenses.

Aaryn Richard, director of marketing and communications at the Burgess Institute, added, “Within the program, the students will have access to mentorship with industry experts (usually alumni), help from Discovery interns, and funding from the Gerstacker-Forest Akres endowment.”

Plans are already underway to continue the Spartan Agora once a semester with CAS 114, inviting alumni to ultimately choose one finalist from each class to receive funding and support from MSU.

“We will be doing this competition again at the end of October, so keep an eye out for an email from our office starting in September,” said Jones. “This is a really great way to see the creativity that students have in a 100-level class. The competition is virtual, and you will spend less than 90 minutes over the course of the week scoring videos. It is a really great way to get involved with ComArtSci.”

Alumni: Volunteer to Judge in the Spartan Agora

Reflecting on the overall experience, Chowles said, “When I first came here, I thought, my job is to teach them information. This is my 7th year; I’ve realized that’s not what I'm here to do. I’m here to ignite fires. To get students excited about their potential and see different options.”


— Jessica Mussell

Minor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation