All four teams of Montana State University student entrepreneurs who competed at a startup competition held this fall earned awards and funding to support their ventures.
The students were competing in the 31st annual John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge, which was held virtually between Sept. 21 and Oct. 2. Competing teams pitched their best business ideas to a panel of judges for their share of awards and funding.
A record 31 teams applied to the statewide competition. Nine teams then advanced to the next round, where they pitched their ideas and answered questions from different panels of judges over a weeklong period. The panels of judges then selected four teams to compete in a final event held Oct. 2. Four of the nine teams selected to participate in the competition were from MSU, and two of the four teams selected for the final event were from MSU.
“The MSU venture coaches and I were so proud of the student teams,” said Trevor Huffmaster, director of the MSU Blackstone LaunchPad. “With everything else going on with fall classes and the pandemic, these students adapted extremely well and learned a lot from the experience in addition to winning several awards and funding to take their ventures to the next level.”
The four MSU teams were Gallatin Visual Media, a science communication production company that helps university professors communicate their research and its impacts through film and photography; Legitimizer, which was created to stop illegitimate apps; SporeAttic LLC, a commercial gourmet mushroom farm; and Zesty Touch, an app designed to help reduce household food waste.
SporeAttic earned a total of $10,750 in prize funding, including $6,250 for tying for second place in the competition, $3,500 for the coveted People’s Choice Award and $1,000 for the Intent to Launch award.
Gallatin Visual Media tied for second place in the competition and received $6,250.
Legitimizer earned $1,800 for being a finalist and also received the Most Innovative Award, which came with $1,500. In addition, Joaquin Monterrosa of Legitimizer took home the $500 Brandon Speth Award for Charisma, Passion and Poise.
As a finalist, Zesty Touch secured $1,800 in funding.
Ben Deuling and Ali Moxley, co-founders of SporeAttic, said the competition helped them in several ways.
“Preparing for the competition itself forced us to iron out many of the business logistics that we had originally overlooked, making us feel more organized and confident as we launched this startup,” Deuling said. “The judges, comprised of experienced business professionals, asked provoking questions and probed deeply into areas beyond our expertise. This improved our ability to answer questions and pitch our business, which is something we do on a daily basis.”
Deuling said the funding enabled the company to hire its first part-time employee and also allowed the business to ramp up production.
SporeAttic is delivering 60 to 80 pounds of gourmet mushrooms to restaurants weekly, Deuling said, and they’ve sold out of mushrooms at several Bozeman farmers’ markets. These early successes have given Deuling and Moxley confidence in the business, he added.
Gallatin Visual Media’s founders, Erinn Hermsen and Nate Kenney, said the competition helped them articulate their vision for the business.
“Working with our coach to polish our business plan and learning to pitch to investors is a prize in itself,” Kenney said.
The question and answer sessions with the judges helped the team iron out their business plan, Hermsen noted.
“A few of the judges pushed us to think even bigger in our ability to scale the company,” she said. “We were able to see an even bigger future for the company than we initially realized.”
The four MSU student teams were coached and mentored by Huffmaster; Andrew Nakas, an MSU alumnus and LaunchPad venture coach; Peter Nalen, instructor in the Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship; and Paddy Fleming, director of the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center. The teams received support from the MSU Blackstone LaunchPad & Techstars, which offers coaching, ideation and venture creation support for students, alumni and faculty, as well as support from the MSU Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship.
The Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship offers four undergraduate options of study – accounting, finance, management and marketing – as well as five minors – accounting, business administration, entrepreneurship and small business management, finance, and international business. It also offers a master of professional accountancy degree, master of science in innovation and management, a business certificate and entrepreneurship certificate.