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Dressed for success: UW-Stout students’ Safe Skin clothing idea advances to state Big Idea Tournament

Team’s business proposal, aiming to remove chemicals from clothing, tops campus competition

By Jerry Poling, UW Stout

A big idea by three University of Wisconsin-Stout students is headed to the state WiSys Big Idea Tournament.

On Friday, April 19, Bri Noble, a junior in fashion design and development from Prior Lake, Minn., and Mikayla Obsuszt, a senior in marketing and business education from Wisconsin Rapids, will represent UW-Stout with their idea Safe Skin. They hope to walk away with a win and seed funding for their business.

The students, including Halle Sullivan, a junior in business administration from Cottage Grove, Wis., recently participated in UW-Stout’s Ideation Jam.

“The Ideation Jam serves as a platform for students to turn ideas into early reality within a couple of days, regardless of their discipline or business skills,” said Mary Spaeth, professor of entrepreneurship at UW-Stout. “It’s inspirational, impactful and builds can-do confidence in an extraordinarily short period of time.”

The weekend jam brings the expertise of faculty mentors as well as business and investment professionals. Some of these mentors included Bart Bohn, professor of entrepreneurial finance at the University of Texas-Austin; Sandra Spencer, head of innovation at University of British Columbia; Tom Hall, senior program manager of business operations at Veritas Technologies and a startup adviser; and UW-Stout faculty Kenny Smith, Renee Surdick, Joan Navarre and Mark Fenton, as well as Cabot Executive Bill Stoehr.

Each year following the Ideation Jam, UW-Stout hosts the prequalifier semifinals for students who want to compete in the Big Idea Tournament, to be held at UW-La Crosse. The tournament is open to undergraduate and graduate students attending Universities of Wisconsin schools across the state, except UW-Madison. The tournament showcases innovative business ideas across all disciplines and provides mentorship to participating qualifiers.

A line of healthier occupational clothing

The Safe Skin team hopes to develop a line of base-layer clothing to protect wearers of chemically treated uniforms. Some of the chemicals, despite their danger, are used to treat uniforms for firefighters to save their lives, but many chemicals including PFAS, AZO dyes and those used to decrease wrinkles or even reduce body odor are not always necessary.

In their pitch to prequalifier judges Dale Mord and Sheri Yukel, the Safe Skin team explained that four American Airlines flight attendants won a lawsuit against a clothing manufacturer in 2023 claiming various health problems because of toxic chemicals in their new uniforms. Formaldehyde, for example, is commonly used to prevent wrinkling.

Safe Skin clothing will be made with a combination of fibers including hemp, which doesn’t contain pesticides and herbicides because it’s naturally resistant to diseases. Hemp also is nontoxic, recyclable and biodegradable.

In addition, Safe Skin would use dyes made from plants — aloe vera, turmeric and indigo — as part of the ancient Ayurvedic process. The plants have healing properties that would support skin and overall health.

The target market for Safe Skin clothing is occupational, such as flight attendants, police officers, firefighters and health care workers.

“This is such an interesting idea and a great opportunity for them,” said Kim Nimsgern of Menomonie, who co-facilitated the Ideation Jam with Spaeth. Nimsgern is founder and CEO of Casual Panache.

The Safe Skin team are working with Nimsgern, Spaeth and other mentors to perfect their Big Idea pitch prior to the state tournament. Spaeth will accompany them to the tournament. Presentations at the state tournament are limited to six minutes.

Five teams, totaling 29 students, competed in the UW-Stout prequalifier.

Taking second place was an idea for an artificial intelligence styling app called Style Me. Team members are Elaina Blazei, of St. Paul; Sam Gerber, of Berlin, Wis.; Ayden Goslawski, of Hancock; Jeremiah Hubbard, of Hammond; Omar Kouki, of Tunisia; Mansour Naderi, of Afghanistan; and YaYee Thao, of Wisconsin Rapids. The students represent five majors, including business, management, engineering and computer science.

Taking third place was Balanced Bites. Team members Adi Ambalam, of St. Paul; Joseph Bliss, of Eden Prairie, Minn.; Ethan Draeger, of Jackson; Daniel Gielczyk, of Beach Park, Ill.; and Le Minh Hoang, of Vietnam, represented business, arts administration and computer science majors.

They envision a unique experiential restaurant that is designed to appeal to athletes and gym-goers. The meals are not only planned for nutrition and calories but also for those who intentionally want/need to gain or lose weight to match their training goals.

Encouraging entrepreneurship

Since coming to UW-Stout in early 2017, Spaeth has worked to develop the entrepreneurship program in the School of Management including a minor in entrepreneurship and innovation. Along with the School of Art and Design, she collaborated with Jerry Hui, Cynthia Bland, Darren Ward, Mitch Ogden, Dave Beck and others to create bachelor’s degree in arts administration and entrepreneurship.

“Students learn arts administration and entrepreneurial skills not only to start their own businesses, but also to work as management leaders across the creative and cultural industries from media, video production, dance, industrial design, studio art, game design, music, performing arts, photography, fine arts and more,” Spaeth said.

WiSys, creator of the Big Idea Tournament, in its eighth year, is a nonprofit that facilitates research programs, develops and commercializes discoveries, and fosters a spirit of innovative and entrepreneurial thinking across the state for the Universities of Wisconsin.

Another WiSys competition, Quick Pitch, based on student research that could benefit society, is coming up. The UW-Stout qualifier will be held Monday, April 29, during Research Day on campus and the state meet July 24-26 at UW-Superior.

UW-Stout is Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University, with a focus on applied learning, collaboration with business and industry, and career outcomes. Learn more via the FOCUS2030 strategic plan.



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