Idaho Entrepreneur Challenge plants seeds for potential startups
Student winners share what’s next for their business, product plans
The 7th annual Idaho Entrepreneur Challenge hosted more advanced and higher quality student pitches than ever before, a sentiment shared among judges and event organizers. Students from each of Idaho’s colleges and universities competed virtually for a share of $50,000 prize money and exclusive mentorship opportunities through four business area tracks. The overall winner also receives an opportunity to pitch their idea at Boise Startup Week’s Pitch Competition in October.
This year’s winners are:
Lifestyle & Service Track — 3D Printcess, which 3D prints custom designs for gifting or prototyping. Innovated by Sierra Sandison, of Boise State University.
Social & Environmental Impact Track — HONU System, a device which stimulates water movement for purification. Innovated by Cole Alteneder and Landon Lively, of University of Idaho.
Software & Technology Track — Schoolhouse Simulations, LLC which allows educators to develop techniques and train in virtual classroom settings, because “education touches everyone.” Innovated by Sydney Hartford, Amy Huck, Riley Merithew and Daniel Robinson at University of Idaho.
Manufactured Goods Track (and the overall winner of the competition) — Cargo Made-Ez, patent-pending load securing technology for transport hauling. Innovated by Adam Stock of Brigham Young University–Idaho.
When asked how he felt, Stock responded, “… like a cow running through a field of tall grass … I feel tickled.”
Then he chuckled. “My wife told me not to say that.”
As for what’s next, Stock plans work with engineering partners and purchase more equipment while devoting more time to getting (the business) off the ground.
“I can say, from the pitches I judged, the ideas I listened to, were better quality, which ultimately made the pitches come across better in the end,” said Tiam Rastegar, executive director for Trailhead Boise and co-chair of Boise Startup Week. Rastegar served as a first round judge for the competition this year and in previous years.
Additional awards included:
- Trolley House Ventures Award of $7,000 to HONU Systems.
- President’s Award to Dream Driven Apparel, which was the Lifestyle & Service Track 1st runner-up.
Nick Crabbs, also a returning judge, co-chair of Boise Startup Week and partner at Vynyl, said he would not be surprised if several of the pitches made it to Boise Startup Week in the (possibly very) near future. Seconding Rastegar’s comments, he added that the quality of this year’s pitches indicates how the entrepreneurship programs at all Idaho universities are progressing.
The finalist pitch competition video is available through the Boise State Venture College’s YouTube channel. The judges were Blake Hansen (Alturas), Amy Knight (Hawley Troxell), Andy Scoggin (StageDotO) and Faisal Shah (AppDetex).
“All participants get a network they can tap into, that people are interested in what they are working on, that (network) knows who they are and are interested in seeing them succeed,” said Nic Miller, executive director of the Boise State Venture College. “I think Boise has an ease of access. Be bold; pursue your idea, and reach out to the people you think can help you. Odds are, they’ll help if they can.”
3D Printcess to increase slug printing, pioneer custom projects
Sierra Sandison always wanted to be the female version of Bill Nye the Science Guy, and this year’s IEC showed she is well on her way down that path. Sandison, in addition to studying mechanical engineering, has an affinity for entomology, and the two came together in a 3D printed pet slug product line, each slug being a different species with unique traits, but all offering fun friendship.
“That’s been a blast and I hope it continues to grow,” Sandison said.
Her idea went viral on TikTok, and as of this writing Sandison crossed 100,000 followers. Sandison credits her understanding of toy development and marketing coming from her internship with Caleb Chung, who created the popular 1990s toy the Furby. She already has offers of mentorship around manufacturing and fulfillment.
“That’s been amazing; probably even more valuable than the money (prize),” Sandison said. With her $7,000 in prize money, Sandison plans to purchase more 3D printers for the slug line. With that going, she will be able to expand a potential second line of her business 3D Printcess: printed custom projects. One she has started is a 3D printed ultrasound picture for her sister. She is now looking into how to backlight the image.
“It’s OK to not know everything,” Sandison said. “I think people may feel imposter syndrome … places like the Venture College or the Idaho Women’s Center or Trailhead, that’s what they are there for. Bring your idea to them; they are there to help.”
HONU System to showcase third-generation product, receive business mentorship
It all started with a concern for dairy farmers and a shared sport. Cole Alteneder, who was studying marketing, and Landon Lively, studying operation management first met at the University of Idaho as underclassmen track athletes. Their similar interests collided again in an early entrepreneurship class. After creating a successful fake donut shop for a class assignment, Alteneder and Lively, amused and baffled, wondered what they could do together for real.
“Mentorship through Trolley House could take us a long way,” Altender said. “Being with professionals who will help us scale the company is huge for us. I think Trolley House will help us surround ourselves with those variants we don’t have yet (like a CFO), and explore more markets.”
Today, with the help of their engineer Rand and mentoring professor George Tanner, Alteneder and Lively are developing a third generation of the HONU System, (wqsllc.com/products.htm). The first generation, launched in 2017, has been patented.
This third generation will be smaller (weighing about 90-100 pounds), embody more high density polymer plastic, operate in standing water up to 60 feet deep, and hopefully incorporate solar technology to allow for mobility around properties. Possible markets include fisheries, farms and dairies, which originally inspired the idea for Altender. He will continue in that market, and Lively has connections in the golf industry. Both intend to keep pitching, and competing. Both feel their mutual respect for each other will take them far.
“Expect great changes in the water circulating industry,” Lively said. “The HONU device, on top of being (less expensive), uses less power and uses natural processes to clean a pond. We have been recently seeing companies pulling away from harmful practices if they’re able to. I feel you will start seeing the HONU device pick up a lot of traction.”
Dream Driven Apparel to centralize business operations
Alex Safiran had every reason to put his life on hold. This past year brought job loss, and tragedy, with the passing of his mother. But Safiran is dream-driven. It may start with showcasing that dream proudly on a T-shirt.
Safiran, an undergraduate entrepreneurship management student at Boise State University, started designing art for his own apparel, and soon friends and family asked to have pieces designed for them. Word of mouth kept up, and soon Safiran launched Dream Driven Apparel about a year ago. Safiran draws the designs himself, then contracts the printing services, then, upon receiving completed pieces, ships them to customers.
“Dreams can get hard you know, (but) I think that’s the whole point of life, being dream-driven; it keeps you motivated,” Safiran said. “I quickly realized a lot of people want their hobby or interest on a shirt in a completely custom way … it’s (their) dream.”
Receiving the President’s Award will allow Safiran to purchase apparel printing technology, enabling him to hand-print and ship the orders on his own. He already has clients from a forest service trail crew near his hometown of Victor, Idaho, and Safiran sees opportunity to market within the area’s resort industry. He is grateful to his entrepreneurship professors for supporting him.
“It’s been an amazing life changing learning experience,” Safiran said. “I think even now it’s still hard to stay focused sometimes, (but) I feel it’s something even if (my mother) is not physically here, it’s still something to make her proud about.”
Judges, event leaders reflect on IEC
Idaho Entrepreneur Competition, presented by Truckstop.com, received over 100 applications, with 24 being selected to present before a group of 30 judges. The March event compliments a number of upcoming startup and entrepreneur resource opportunities, such as Trailhead’s Survive To Thrive, and pitch competitions, including Boise Startup Week in October. As the overall IEC winner, Cargo Made-Ez already has a secured spot in the Boise Startup Week $20,000 pitch competition.
“The Venture College has a strong presence in the community and can serve as a bridge,” Miller said. “These students are seeking out the opportunity to pitch their ideas; that means they have motivations to be entrepreneurs. I think when we see that … we want to support that. If we want (those) bright young folks to stay here, it’s incumbent on us to help them stay here.”
Trailhead Boise has received the entire list of IEC 2021 participants and is currently reaching out to each of them to connect.
Both Crabbs and Rastegar were impressed by the number of pitches that were post revenue — a key in validation — and that several had provisional patents, a common question around the protection of intellectual property. Rastegar was pleased to see a few pitches return from other community competitions.
“I felt there was a digital ecosystem high-five there,” he said.
Crabbs felt eight or nine of the IEC pitches were really close to each other competitively speaking; the runners-up had very narrow margins to beat.
“These teams are coming out better prepared year over year; I think that bodes well for entrepreneurship here,” Crabbs said. “More and more these companies look like they could become investible if the student continues to work on them. Sticking with it is the thing that will cause us to pay attention.”
Miller described the Idaho Entrepreneur Competition as being the start of the pipeline for the entrepreneurial community; this was underscored this year by the high level of pitches presented, he said, and how engaged the judges were with those students. In years past, this would have been an in-person event, more ideal for networking. A virtual component of the competition will likely continue in the future, to better connect the other educational institutions and more parts of the state.
The next step for Boise Venture College is to look at ways it can make the event better, Miller said. An example was the new Manufactured Goods Track, added for this year. Miller welcomes community feedback, particularly around interaction. This year’s event sponsors and partners include Alturas, Community Development Inc. (CDI), Hawley Troxell, IGEM, JUMP, Stratton & Associates and leaders from the state’s other universities.
Both Crabbs and Rastegar expressed their appreciation for the IEC event itself this year, saying “the work they put in showed off,” with improved judging software and an updating judging rubric which incorporated feedback from previous years. Rastegar hopes in upcoming years a category emerges around an individual or team pitching themselves as the product, similar to Sandison’s approach with the influential slug line.
“She is basically an influencer,” Rastegar said. “It was a novelty I hadn’t heard in years past.”
And while the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic did pose a number of impressive challenges on all IEC stakeholders, Crabbs offered that perhaps the community should not be too surprised to see such high-level pitches in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, as entrepreneurs have to be adaptable.
“That bodes well for the ecosystem,” Crabbs said. “I believe this group will do well …
we’re trained to be problem solvers; that’s what entrepreneurs should be. It was a good event, one of the better ones and cohorts of teams we’ve seen.”