Big Idea

Liana Leja presents her Big Idea of The Care Van to a panel of eight judges during the final round of the Big Idea Competition at Allegheny College on Saturday.

Entering a collegiate business competition and pitching an idea how to provide better health care to the 90 percent of Crawford County residents who don’t have a primary care physician was something Liana Leja never thought she’d do — let alone potentially see her idea become a reality.

Leja won the 11th Annual Big Idea Competition held by the Center for Business and Economics at Allegheny College for developing a business plan for Meadville Medical Center to use a mobile health care van with a registered nurse to take health care into rural areas.

The mobile van would expand access to health care to county residents, improve treatment of chronic diseases and control the hospital’s costs, according to Leja.

The competition is modeled along the lines of “Shark Tank,” the ABC TV show where budding entrepreneurs present their ideas to business people who made their own ideas into successful businesses.

This year’s competition consisted of 27 teams of one to three students, with 20 teams from Allegheny and seven from Grove City College.

Students presented ideas in one of four categories: for-profit business, nonprofit social venture, research project, or community engagement initiative. Students may work solo or in teams to design 20-minute presentations for their ideas, which they present at the competition. The competition was judged by a panel of Allegheny alumni, as well as two faculty members.

The competition got its start under Chris Allison, a business economics faculty member at Allegheny, who also has been the college’s entrepreneur in residence since 2006. Allison led Tollgrade Communications Inc. from technology startup to a public company. He was with Tollgrade for 16 years including 10 as chairman and chief executive officer.

Leja decided to enter the competition after taking classes at Allegheny in financial literacy and business entrepreneurship from Allison.

Leja, from McDonald near Pittsburgh, is a senior biology major minoring in global health studies. She was leaning toward becoming a conservation technician, but now she’s eyeing the health care field because of her findings.

In researching health care, Leja found 90 percent of the county’s 87,000 residents — or 78,300 people — don’t have a primary care physician. Her research also found that 64 percent of county residents live more than 10 miles from a physician and the county is short about 11 primary care physicians based on the national average of 1,400 patients per physician.

“It’s a problem right here in our own county,” Leja said.

Her research further showed that 50 percent of emergency department visits from rural residents are non-urgent or avoidable while for the country as a whole it’s 33 percent. Meadville Medical Center has about 36,500 emergency department visits a year; if 33 percent of those, or 12,167 could be avoided, that may save the hospital about $7.5 million in costs annually, Leja found.

“I’m really surprised,” she said of her win. “I’m happy the work paid off.”

It’s also paid off for Leja as she’s earned a $5,000 cash award.

But her mobile health care van plan also may pay off for Crawford County residents down the road.

Dr. Denise Johnson, medical director at Meadville Medical Center, and Duane Koller, director of community support at MMC, who were in attendance at Friday’s preliminary round of the competition, gave Leja positive feedback on her idea.

James Mullen, Allegheny’s president who serves on MMC’s board of directors, also is working to get Leja a meeting with Rene Suntay, MMC’s chief financial officer, and Philip Pandolph, the hospital’s chief executive officer.

“I never thought I’d be involved in this,” Leja said.

Allison said students benefit through the experience of creating business designs by giving them real-world experience.

“Our judges are pretty rigorous,” Allison said. “They’re very probative and they ask very difficult questions. That experience kind of prepares them for life in the outside world. Where money is at stake, the stakes get very high and people ask tough questions. We think this prepares them better than anything.”

Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at


Winners in the 11th Annual Big Idea Competition held by the Center for Business and Economics at Allegheny College are:

• The Zingale Prize (first place) $5,000 — Liana Leja, Allegheny College, The Care Van

• Second place $2,500 — Megan Smith, Grove City College, Scribble Scrubs

• Third place $1,500 — Hannah Vaccar and Ross Harrington, Grove City College, PeeWee Packs

• Honorable mention — Greg Bras, Allegheny College, Additive Manufacturing Acutec Precision Aerospace

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