KEARNEY – Nicole Mittman began creating and selling glow-in-the-dark paintings during high school, but it’s always been more of a hobby than a business.

“I originally started painting them as a way to make money so I could go to Costa Rica,” the York native said.

Over the past few years, her customer base has consisted mainly of family and friends, although she does have an Instagram account (@nicoles_paintings) and Etsy page (GlowUpPaintings) where she promotes the unique artwork.

“I’ve always known that if more people saw these pieces in person they’d be more excited about it,” Mittman said. “It’s just been hard for me to get this idea out there.”

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That’s why she decided to enter the ninth annual Big Idea Kearney competition.

Organized by the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Rural Development, the contest gives college students and community members an opportunity to pitch their business or product ideas, with the best concepts winning cash prizes.

Mittman, one of 16 finalists selected to present Wednesday evening at Cunningham’s on the Lake, won the college division and $1,000 to help get her business off the ground.

It was a surprising victory for the UNK sophomore.

“I have absolutely no business background, and my major isn’t even art,” said Mittman, who is studying wildlife biology.

But she does have a pretty cool product.

Mittman uses regular acrylic paint and a mixture she makes using glow-in-the-dark powder for each piece, creating a “2-in-1 painting” that really stands out when the lights are off.

“I also do regular acrylic paintings, but I figured this was the most dramatic big idea I could bring to the table,” she said. “They’re definitely the favorite among people I’ve sold to.”

The UNK student plans to use the money to launch a website where she can sell her paintings and take custom orders.

“I don’t want to mass produce it,” she said. “I want each piece to be handmade by me. I want it to be personalized.”

UNK’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Rural Development received a total of 80 entries for this year’s Big Idea competition. The field of finalists was narrowed by a panel of judges before the roughly 150 people in attendance Wednesday night voted on the winners, who received $1,000 for first place, $500 for second and $250 for third in each division.

The winner of the community division, Jonah Staab of Kearney, pitched his online business, Qualitech, which takes a different approach to product development.

Staab researches trends on Amazon to identify high-demand products he can create a higher-quality version of using computer-aided design software.

“There’s a lot of cheap junk that goes on Amazon,” the 22-year-old said.

His first product is a stainless steel basket used to cook food over a campfire or grill. The basket, packaged with heat-resistant gloves, is dishwasher-safe and it doesn’t rust. He’s sold more than 1,300 units over the past 10 months.

“As time goes on, I’m only going to add more products,” said Staab, who contracts with a manufacturer and sells the product through Amazon and his website,

He also won the Big Idea contest in 2016 with his Sydewynder Wheels, which allow skateboards to roll forward, backward and sideways without grinding down the wheels.

“That’s actually what led me to this,” said Staab, who hopes to generate enough revenue to start production on that project.

Who knows? He might be back next year with another brilliant business idea to capitalize on.

“There could be some other stuff coming up,” he said with a smile.

Big Idea Kearney, which promotes and supports entrepreneurship across central Nebraska, is sponsored by the UNK College of Business and Technology, Economic Development Council of Buffalo County, Invest Nebraska Corporation, NUtech Ventures, Nebraska Enterprise Fund and Cunningham’s Journal.

This year’s judges were UNK College of Business and Technology Dean Tim Jares, Economic Development Council of Buffalo County President Darren Robinson, Kearney entrepreneur John Rickard and last year’s winners, Press On Fitness owner Jenn Nolda and UNK student SriTeja Vedurumudi.

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