High school entrepreneurs pitch their big ideas, with real money and investors on the line

CHICAGO — One after another, five teams of entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of judges, all vying for a $20,000 prize and to potentially make their dreams a reality. But this isn't a reality show - it's a high school competition.

INCubatoredu launched at Barrington High School in 2014 and broke out nationally the following year. Today, more than 11,000 students participate in 100 schools spanning 18 states. What started with 37 teams earlier in the year was narrowed down to five frontrunners this week at Chicago’s 1871 tech hub.

These Among them is Grow Greenly, a biodegradable plant pot dreamed up by students from Leesburg, VA.

“After going to plant stores it was clear to me how much plastic we were wasting after taking plants out of those plastic pots,” founder Pranavi Karnati said.

Then there's Battle Buddies from a group of Lake Forest High School students. The nonprofit matches pediatric cancer patients with teenage volunteers to brighten their days.

Ideal Meals caters to people with food allergies or limitations, spanning everything from gluten free to vegan and every allergy in between. The work to get it up and running was some of the hardest and most rewarding work the Fremd High School founders could imagine.

“Last week we were up at 6 a.m. and home at 11 p.m. for four days in a row. (It) teaches you energy management," co-founder Alex Harmon said.

The students from across the country developed their business ideas with the help of over 2,500 volunteers who engage as mentors, coaches and judges.

The end result is a fully-fledged business pitch, like Henna Helpers out of Naples, FL, which offers mobile organic henna tattoos. Or the Game Time app courtesy of a team from Austin, TX which allows interactive sports betting during games.

If they win, students could walk away with real money, and line up real investors with the potential of being their own boss — before they even enter the labor market.

At the contest inside Chicago's 1871, the groups presented their products or services, fielded tough conceptual and financial questions from the pros, and then waited to see who would come up a winner.

In the end, the victory and $20,000 prize were split between two competition winners, Game Time and Grow Greenly. All the finalists won in a way, scoring $10,000 academic scholarships to Millikin University in Decatur.

The young entrepreneurs got a a boost from some of the best around, like Jimmy Odom of cryptocurrency startup Bitcapital, who says one of the biggest takeaways from such a contest is learning to accept rejection.

"We’re told no as entrepreneurs more frequently than we are told yes," Odom said

Rejection over and over builds character and will for many entrepreneurs, and could even build into a business someday.