More than 150 people turned out on Wednesday at The Green on Main Street for the event hosted by EforAll to see products from 14 businesses and 2 1/2 minute pitches from eight of them.
The winner of the $1,000 first prize as well as $500 fan favorite bonus was a group of Williams College students who are developing Lifestack Supplements, a health-oriented coffee creamer supplement. Coming in second was Aaron Johnson of Monterey for his entertainment company Boxxa Vine Productions that promotes and supports the art of drag.
But certainly stealing the show a little was 10-year-old Ava Neathawk, who was selected by attendees that evening to pitch her idea of dedicated cutting boards for preparing gluten-free and other problematic foods ended up winning $500 and third place.
"If I was to win the thousand dollars, I would use the money to buy materials to make 150 cutting boards allowing me to make a little over five grand," she explained to the crowd. "The more I can purchase, it allows me to keep my overhead costs down and in turn keep my profits high."
The Williamstown Elementary School student was inspired to call her creations "Gluten Free Giraffe," based on the stuffed giraffe she's had since she was 9 months old. It doesn't hurt either that her parents are Ryan and Lindsay Neathawk, who own the successful Neathawk Designs that produces and engraves her bamboo and custom walnut creations.
But where Ava's concept was keeping food products apart for health, Vincent Grudenus and Zack Schreier are pitching health concoctions that can boost your energy or help you chill.
The feedback the students got on their initial trials was that the supplements went well with coffee, which inspired them to create a powdered form that can be used a creamer.
"We're hoping to manufacture a sample batch of our product that we can use to offer to potential customers, retailers, wholesalers, distributors and the like," said Gudenus. "We think that this could be a really important step for us in the next direction."
He said they were very happy to win the fan favorite bonus of $500. The fan favorite was selected by the attendees at the conclusion of the pitches.
"We had really positive interactions in the first half of the pitch competition competition, the tabling and talking to people directly about our product and in the value proposition that we offer," Gudenus said.
Johnson, dressed in an impressive red wig, sweetheart dress and white go-go boots, perhaps had the best reason for why his drag production company would be successful
"There is a need for what I'm putting on. How do I know?" he told the gathering. "We sold out two shows last night."
Helping small startups like the winners of Wednesday's pitch competition is the mission of EforAll, a nonprofit economic development program that also offers mentorships, business accelerator programs and seed money.
Gururaj "Desh" Deshpande, president of Sparta Group LLC, and his wife Jaishree, provided the initial capital and vision for what was first the Merrimack Valley Sandbox about a decade ago. The Entrepreneurship for All organization has since grown and launched in Berkshire County last year. It is supported by a range of local and regional entities.
Executive Director Deborah Gallant said they were very pleased with the turnout for the event, which eclipsed that of their first competition in Pittsfield. EforAll had done a significant amount of outreach to the community, she said, and that had paid off.
"It was just wonderful and I know we'll be back again," she said. The goal is to do several competitions a year, rotating between north, south and central Berkshire.
Startups invited to the competition had table set up to show off their wares and explain their business models. Six of those had been preselected to present their pitches during the application process. Attendees could chose one more to pitch by placing stickers on their information cards so the one with the most — Neathawk — got to present. The final was a wild card by having their name drawn: Peter Hopkins with Little Dippers, a product from Hoppy Valley.
Also pitching was a jewelry maker seeking a brick and mortar space; an illusionist and makeup artist; a hydroponics greens producer; and Berkshire Advanced Manufacturing Training and Education Center. Those at the tables also included an interactive T-shirt design, a woodworker, and a hanging hydroponics scheme by the North Adams Public Schools' own E3 Academy.
"It's been really exciting to watch the program, grow and develop, it's been exciting to see the interest and the attention from North County, and it is just unbelievable to look around this room, and see the level of energy, the level of creativity and how it really is uniquely and distinctly and wonderfully powerfully North Adams and in North Berkshire," said Mayor Thomas Bernard in welcoming the event. "To see so many people with entrepreneurial ideas coming together, having the opportunity to work, collaborate, learn from each other, and sustain what they what they, their, their passion their enthusiasm is building for them."
The pitch contest judges were Amber Besaw of Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, Benjamin Lamb of 1Berkshire, Brent Filson of Lever Inc., Donna Halton of Adams Community Bank, Kelli Kozak of Mountain One, Nate Girard of Bloom Brothers and Tonio Palmer from Williams College.
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