Startup challenge goes big at 27th annual event

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Don Gaumer, director of the John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenges, opens the final round of presentations at the University of Montana. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

With the clock running, George Gaines stepped before a packed house at the University of Montana on Thursday night to pitch his line of handcrafted skis. The UM student and founder of Chilton Skis had 60 seconds to win the crowd’s support.

“In today’s ski industry, large established brands lack environmental consciousness and commitment to the essence for our need for outdoor recreation,” Gaines said. “Right here in Missoula, Chilton mindfully handcrafts back-country, all-mountain-capable skis with locally salvaged and industry standard composite materials.”

With the voting counted, Chilton Skis tied with Danceador – a worldwide virtual dance platform – for the night’s best elevator pitch and finished third in the final round of presentations, earning the upstart company a cool $5,000 in capital.

From beginning to end, the competition was stiff at the 27th annual John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge, held at the Gallagher School of Business at UM. The event drew 16 entrepreneurs looking to secure the funding needed to send their business on to the next stage of development.

Hopeful companies included a wide range of products and services, including Hazard Ready, an upstart Missoula company looking to bring risk information to major metros. Triple Divide has built an online financial service for peer-to-peer lending, while Urgent ID has created an emergency notification and personal locator system.

“Our idea is to protect kids from a situation like a tornado or an active shooter at school,” said Denise Hartman, one of the founders of Urgent ID. “It would lock down the school in the case of an active shooter, or locate kids in the event of a tornado.”

The startup challenge traces its roots back to 1989 when UM professor Paul Larson made a phone call to KT Thuerbach. Larson convinced Thuerbach to visit UM and together, with the support of School of Business Dean Larry Gianchetta, the momentum – and the financial support – began to grow.

“That first year, we were in a small conference room across the river at the Holiday Inn,” said Thuerbach. “It was dynamic. It was unbelievable. There was one prize – $1,500 to the winner. The next year we got more sponsors, the prize got bigger, as did the venue.”

Thuerbach described the program’s early days as the predecessor to what sponsors now refer to as venture capital. Back then, he said, Montana had an economic development initiative, and they were able to secure roughly $2 million to launch two venture capital funds.

They also set out to recruit investors, including Liz Marchi. Along with others, she has invested in 28 startup companies in the state and across the region. The investment funds have grown, as has the prizes offered at the startup challenge – prizes that now stand at $50,000.

The challenge and the incentives that come with it only grows Montana’s standing as one of the nation’s entrepreneurial hotbeds. While Silicon Valley gets all the glory, the New York Times reported last year, “the real hotbed of American entrepreneurship appears to be a few hundred miles to the northeast in Montana.”

According to a report compiled by the Kauffman foundation, the state leads the nation in business creation. The rankings were based in part on the number of adults who start new businesses. In Montana, the report found that 54 of every 100,000 residents launch a business – a rate nearly twice the national average.

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Several hundred people attended the 27th annual startup challenge on Thursday night.

“You can’t do it unless someone is behind it – somebody who has a vision,” Thuerbach said of the state’s entrepreneurs. “They’re people with vision, people with risk, willing to take chances and aren’t satisfied with the status quo.”

With funding in place, the challenge provides students from across the state with real-world experience in developing a startup. The competition is open to students from all academic majors and all Montana colleges.

To prepare for the competition, the students are mentored by professionals from the state’s startup incubators, including Blackstone LaunchPad at UM and the Missoula Economic Partnership, among others.

Bloom Content, a cloud-hosted platform that connects student content producers with local businesses looking to stand out online, took home the night’s top prize of $15,000. While the event saw its share of winners, none of the teams went home as losers.

“Long boarders, skateboarders and scooter riders are choosing sustainable transportation, but they lack the proper infrastructure to secure their boards,” said Graydon Myhre, founder of LongLoc. “We’ll start at UM but scale nationwide. Our product has been through four iterations with prototyping, and funding has been applied to provide pilot racks on campus this summer.”