You could call it Philomath’s version of “Shark Tank” — the ABC reality show that allows budding entrepreneurs an opportunity to pitch their ideas to a panel of tough tycoons while seeking exposure and funding for startups or expansions.
Promoted as Winter PitchFest, each entrepreneur stood in front of an audience of local dignitaries, businesspeople, educators and of course, the judges, and went through a 5-minute pitch with visuals before answering questions.
Anielis Raas, a Venezuela native who has lived in the Philomath area for about five years, was among those who pitched their ideas Thursday night at Nectar Creek.
“I have presented before but not in this setting,” Raas said about a half-hour before the program got started. “It’s a good experience, an interesting one, but of course, I’m a little nervous.”
Raas described her product, ZenPui, as “eco-conscious outfits for professional women that want to get away from uniforms to add a little bit more personality and flair to it.”
Corey Wright, Oregon RAIN Linn-Benton venture catalyst, said the event involves entrepreneurs “that recently completed our pre-accelerator scale-your-startup workshop and pitch in front of venture capitalists and angel investors coming all the way down from Portland."
“Some of our top venture capitalist firms in the state are going to be judging this event," he added, "so it’s a great opportunity to get their product and their companies out in front of potential investors."
One of those judges was Jon Maroney with Cultivating & Connecting, a venture capitalist firm out of Portland.
“These kinds of events are just examples for people as someone to look up to and say, ‘hey, I want to be like that and do something like that,’” Maroney said. "I think it’s really inspirational for not just entrepreneurs but the community in general.”
What did he plan to look for as a judge?
“I’m looking for companies that have opportunities to scale and grow with really unique ideas and well thought-out plans,” he said. “I’m excited to see the new companies that are coming up in the area.”
Besides Maroney, other judges included Tricia Salcido, Softstar Shoes CEO; Angela Jackson, Portland Seed Fund managing director; Scott Laughlin, Elevate Capital venture associate; and Marecau Michel, Rogue Venture Partners analyst.
RAIN — an acronym for Regional Accelerator & Innovation Network — was originally founded by the Oregon Regional Solutions network and funded by Business Oregon’s Rural Opportunities Initiative to connect regional entrepreneurs with strategic resources for launching and scaling business ventures, including mentor connections, educational and training programs and access to capital.
Benton County contributed seed money in the early days of the effort while moving toward applying for a Business Oregon grant.
“We’re happy to be able to provide that kind of leverage funding and to make sure the economic development effort is countywide and reaches into the smaller communities,” said Xan Augerot, one of three Benton County commissioners on hand for the Winter PitchFest. “We’re pleased with the work that RAIN has done so far.”
Besides Benton County, others that contributed to the organization’s funding included Linn County, the Ford Family Foundation, the city of Albany and the eight-city collaborative that along with Philomath includes Adair Village, Brownsville, Halsey, Harrisburg, Lebanon, Monroe and Sweet Home.
The ground rules for Thursday night's event? Each entrepreneur had 5 minutes to go through their pitches accompanied by 10 to 15 slides.
“They have some key material that investors always want to see that we’ve trained them on to present in those slides,” Wright said prior to the event. “Then they’ll have five minutes to answer questions from the judges and then we boot them off the stage and next person gets up there and does their spiel.”
The judges would then review their notes and identify first- and second-place winners. The prize list included $1,000 split up between first and second and various in-kind donations, including a startup information packet worth $2,000 from Christensen Law, and other typical business services from media, photography, intern work and web development firms.
Wright said that among those scheduled to pitch, three involved entrepreneurs specific to Philomath — two startups and one sharing an update.
“Just all over Linn and Benton, there are local businesses that want to help these guys succeed,” Wright said.
Among those would be the evening’s host of Winter PitchFest — Nectar Creek.
“We’ve done a lot of the work that this program has set these up for getting themselves ready to pitch,” Nectar Creek’s Nick Lorenz said. “We’ve gotten help from these same organizations in this state and here we are now in this big facility that’s packed with people all day. It brings back a lot of fun memories.”
Mayor Eric Niemann said Philomath serves as an example of the exciting things that can happen in areas away from the larger cities.
“Stimulating the rural economy, I think, is fantastic,” he said. “I noticed the other day, we took the Small Cities Networking Conference through Softstar Shoes and they’re shipping stuff to Singapore and Denmark and all of that’s through Main Street Philomath.
“This kind of fits right in line with that also in terms of Nectar Creek just got built, this facility anyway, and they’re a local startup and they pull much of their honey from local hives right here in the Willamette Valley and again, it’s a pretty cool thing.”
Niemann and Augerot were impressed with the event.
“It’s obviously generated a lot of excitement and it’s a wonderful place to do this because Nectar Creek has very quickly become a favorite business here in the Philomath area,” Augerot said. “I think the take-home message is there are great ideas from folks living everywhere — they’re not exclusive to the big-city environment and it’s just a fantastic opportunity to see creativity come from folks all across Benton County.”
Niemann said the Winter PitchFest is another example of Philomath’s “we’re open for business” way of thinking.
“I think it fits right in with our Strategic Plan in terms of a healthy economy is one of our themes,” Niemann said. “Oregon RAIN is a great way to be a catalyst for the entrepreneurial spirit and really drives a lot of thinking.”
The event attracted a pretty good crowd that organizers estimated at just over 100. Arlio, with a pitch by Jon Marr, took first place with Akash Kannegulla’s WiseDocs finishing second. The People’s Choice winner was Oregon Automation with presenter Jacqueline Poytress.
Besides ZenPui’s Raas, another startup that pitched was Jacob Tedrow with Pulse Financial.
For entrepreneurs like Raas, she didn’t win one of those top spots at the event, but the evening provided an exciting opportunity for exposure.
“My background is mostly creative and it’s a little hard to get out there and show my baby,” she said. “Whatever I make is a precious thing (to me) and so this kind of thing makes me detach from it a little bit and see what other people think, what their reactions are.”