Entrepreneurs awarded at UA competition
Congressional budget cuts mean fewer federal funds will be flowing to Alaska projects, but a 30 percent tax incentive for private enterprise on infrastructure investments lends a potential ace for rural Alaska.
That’s one of the concepts behind a winning idea at the 2017 Alaska Business Plan Competition April 21 at the Beartooth Theatre hosted by the University of Alaska Anchorage Business Enterprise Institute.
Piper Foster Wilder carried away first place in her plan to help far-flung Alaska communities create their own mini renewable energy grids, and find private funding to do it. The idea also is to ease reliance on government funding.
Wilder, currently deputy director of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, leaves her position this summer to launch 60 Hertz full time. She won $2,000 prize money for her plan.
Another idea caught the six-judge panel’s attention: a trio of Alaska Pacific University students who came up with a shoe that expands for swollen feet won second place. Pandere Shoe inventors Laura Oden, Cecila Crossett and Ayla Rogers also carried away the Best Student Business Plan, InnovateHER, and the Manufacturing Kicker awards.
Backed by Reebok, Pandere would market a new kind of shoe that isn’t restricted by length and width measurements dominating shoe design since the Middle Ages.
“Traditional sizes don’t address volume: swelling from pregnancy, diabetes and edema,” Oden said in her Beartooth stage presentation. “These are dimensionally expandable shoes that expand vertically and outwardly around the ankle.”
Shown in fashionable designs, the footwear also avoids any similarity to the unattractive orthopedic shoe.
The Alaska Business Plan Competition attracted 64 entrants, more than double previous years. Contestants hailed from Unalaska, Ketchikan, Juneau, Fairbanks, Akiachak, Anchorage — and Afghanistan.
Marine Keith McCormick delivered his “Quick Cup” pitch via Facebook Live from Afghanistan at the event. (more about him in a minute.)
Of the 41 who qualified for review, nine finalists selected by a panel competed on April 21.
Entrants submitted plans to overcome current entrepreneurial hurdles. Your Kitchen Startup, a business plan for connecting small food providers to commercial kitchens, took third place for solving a “kitchen problem.”
Conceived by Tammas Brown, the plan helps small culinary businesses contract with commercial grade kitchens.
“A lot of these aren’t big enough to build kitchens yet and several commercial kitchens aren’t being fully used,” Brown said. “We will have standardized contracts and checklists to take the risk out of renting out the commercial kitchen for a business. We would qualify each kitchen and provide (or screen) information on the startup.”
All the resources are in place. Brown, with her husband Lance Ahern, opened with a small pilot group to work out the kinks and grow from there. The idea is to be running by June.
Because the 2017 competition attracted more than twice the usual number of participants, the competition illustrates how many people are interested in starting their own businesses, said Gretchen Fauske, associate director of the University of Alaska Anchorage Center for Economic Development, and the competition’s organizer.
“I think there is an upswing of people interested in their own startups for two reasons: many people in Alaska have been working to advance entrepreneurship for many years and we’re starting to see that pay off,” Fauske said. “And as jobs are going away, people get creative with business ideas. During challenging economic times, startups are more important than ever and will play an essential role.”
The panel of judges consisted of Northrim Bank’s Kelly McCormack, JL Properties’ Jimmy Miner, angel investors Eric McCallum, Gary Klopfer and Angela Astle, and First National Bank Alaska’s Chad Steadman.
First place winner Wilder’s business concept carries particular gravity at a time when state funding for remote Alaska infrastructure projects could be left dangling in the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts that would shut down the Denali Commission.
Wilder cites overcoming obstacles such as the 200 villages currently disconnected from traditional energy grids in Alaska’s vast geography.
“Dependence on diesel fuel is expensive. People are looking for renewable energy as a way to decrease reliance and costs,” Wilder said.
At the same time, Alaska spends more per capita on renewables than any other state, garnering $259 million for renewables that has enabled 70 remote communities to have a renewable input. That’s a good start for each of those to areas to gain its own mini-grid.
“We have a good distance to go. There’s a lot we can do to increase penetration or bring renewables to communities that don’t have it,” Wilder said. “A community is a mini-electric grid. They have traditional powerhouses and can upgrade diesel generators, adding solar array and wind to the fuel mix.”
Blended with other financials such as federal investment tax credit of 30 percent on wind and solar, investors should see a good return on their dollar. Wilder doesn’t believe this tax credit will go away under Trump.
“(President Trump) signaled early on this tax credit wouldn’t be touched since it’s in the name of infrastructure investment,” she said.
60 Hertz, which partners with McKinley Capital, would also supply maintenance software along with a checklist and structure to make the required reporting to the Alaska Energy Authority easier.
“I am grateful for the (competition’s) endorsement,” Wilder said. “I will use the $2,000 prize in the startup budget. It means a lot to me to have the affirmation and support of business people who understand the concepts. That’s what meant the most to me.”
As for McCormick, the Marine based in Afghanistan, his Quick Cup concept didn’t win a prize, but it captured the audience’s and judges’ attention.
His business plan cuts the wait and waste time for coffee buyers and sellers by utilizing an app he invented to assist both sides of the coffee cart. It would allow a customer to order coffee using the app, even pay for it, then arrive at a designated time to pick it up. The coffee business doesn’t lose as much money because it cuts down on the waste of unclaimed, unpaid orders. App users would pay 10 cents per cup to Quick Cup, as would the individual business that signs on.
He figures start up costs are $30,000, he told the audience from his Afghan quarters.
It was a good week for McCormick. He left Afghanistan on April 24. As he was flying out, he told his Facebook friends, “Good bye Afghanistan… forever. And thanks for letting me leave alive and intact.”
McCormick is headed for Anchorage. He wrote to the Journal that he has served in the Marine Corps Infantry for five years and one month. Most currently he worked in Afghanistan as a private military contractor for the Department of State as a combat medic on security detail for the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
“I was born and raised in Anchorage, and so was my wife. We graduated from South (High School) in 2009 and married right after. We now own a home in the Klatt area where we raise our 2 children,” he wrote. “I did concept the idea while in Afghanistan. I was sitting in my armored vehicle texting with my wife about how (do) shops accept ‘text-in orders.’”
Fauske, the competition’s coordinator noted there were so many “side stories” in this competition.
“Each one is a great story,” she said.
Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].