Victoria Heffelfinger, a first-year special education student at Edinboro, earned a $2,500 award from Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education for her entrepreneurial endeavor.

As part of the annual “State System Startup Challenge,” the North Huntingdon, Pa., native captured a third-place finish for her original business plan, Wildlife Water School, which offers inclusive swimming lessons for people ages 6 months and older.

East Stroudsburg junior Steilos Melekos, a business management major from Churchville, Pa., took home the top prize of $10,000 for his business, Blitz Performance – which provides anglers with the highest quality and most innovative lures and apparel for both saltwater and freshwater fishing.

West Chester senior Jake Henry, an applied science student from Camp Hill, Pa., won the second-place prize of $5,000 for his business, Lectra Technologies, that assists people in navigating the rehabilitation process and completing physical therapy.

According to Heffelfinger, the motivation for creating an inclusive aquatic school were staggering statistics about swim safety. Drowning is currently the second-leading cause of death in children ages 1 to 4 and is the leading cause for children with Autism.

“What sets us apart from other swim lessons is we will celebrate inclusion for kids of all ability levels,” Heffelfinger said. “In addition, we will make learning enthusiastic – and a place where kids would love to swim.”

Offering a welcoming environment for people of all abilities and backgrounds, the school provides basic skills, infant swimming resources and advanced instruction. Specialized lessons for people with disabilities or other challenges are also available.

Heffelfinger also collaborated with the PennWest Edinboro Beehive, which assisted with her business pitch and presentation.

“Victoria is emblematic of what the PennWest student is,” said Chris Lantinen, director of the Beehive’s Center for Branding and Strategic Communication. “Creative, driven and aiming to make a difference in her community. I have no doubt that the future of her business, Wildlife Water School, is incredibly strong."

The three businesses received their awards after presenting their plans to a panel of judges on Wednesday, April 19. The finalists were selected from more than 60 students and student teams from across the state-owned public university system.

“The ingenuity and energy of these finalists speaks volumes about the spirit of innovation that is thriving at our universities,” said Daniel Greenstein, chancellor of the State System. “Several past winners of this competition have launched their own businesses from the ideas born of this real-life experience, and I look forward to the new businesses that may emerge from this year’s competition.”

This year’s start-up challenges dovetail with the State System’s efforts to address workforce shortages in education, healthcare, business, social services, engineering and computer science.

Pictured: Victoria Heffelfinger (center) earned a $2,500 award from Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education for her entrepreneurial endeavor. Also pictured are Debra Sheppard, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Cable News, and Daniel Greenstein, chancellor of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education.