Missoula crepery, cricket farm among student startup pitches

Kassi Soelter, founder of Crepe Cuisine in Missoula, plans to launch her business this summer with a vendor booth at the farmer’s market. She pitched her business plans on Thursday at the John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge held at the University of Montana. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Criticism isn’t easy, but for the students who pitched their business plans on Thursday at the University of Montana, a dose of well-meaning advice was more welcome than it was bruising.

Sixteen teams gathered in the Gilkey Center auditorium to compete for a combined $50,000 in prizes during this year’s John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge.

The annual event represents Montana’s largest opportunity for students attending any state college or university to present their business plan to a panel of judges and, at times, an investor or two.

For the students who competed, the experience and advice that came with it was well received.

“You’re a little bit nervous, but when you get in there and see all these faces, they’re there to help,” said Clare Weiler, co-founder of Bonsai Communities. “They’re judges, but they’re not very judgy. They’re here to help us proceed further with our business plan, and that’s very encouraging.”

This year’s business plans included a number of food-related startups, from edible crickets by Cowboy Cricket Farms to Healthy Eats – a business that looks to create a recipe-generating tool tailored to one’s eating habits.

They also included floating wine bottle holders by Pedenza, custom-printed books for one’s favorite guitar and ukulele songs by Ryffit, and a breaching device to help police and military units penetrate formidable steel doors.

“I got in a really bad wreck and I decided to pay back the police department,” said Zack Wright, one of the founders behind Sirberus. “They said they had a problem with security doors, so I took my buddy and spent two weeks sitting down at Arby’s to come up with this idea.”

That idea resulted in something of a ramrod capable of penetrating a steel plate and ripping it out, giving police easy entry to a barricaded interior. The idea has been tested by one Texas police department with positive results, and other inquiries have already come in, including the San Antonio Police Department.

But as with many startups, judges questioned whether the team behind Sirberus had done its financial homework when it came to operating costs and profit. Wright, along with team members Matt Brownlow and Will Krolick, took the questions in stride.

“We have thick skin,” said Brownlow. “We’re young adults and we have a provisional patent under our belts. I don’t think a lot of people can say that. It’s a learning experience and we’re hoping to grow from it and are excited.”

Matt Brownlow, left, and Zack Wright with Sirberus, explain their business model on Thursday at the John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Kassi Soelter, founder of Crepe Cuisine in Missoula, walked away from her morning pitch with a smile. The former nanny who learned to make crepes while living in France saw a window of opportunity to launch a crepery in Missoula.

It would be the city’s first.

Soelter plans to launch her business this summer with a vendor booth at the farmers market. If that goes as planned and the product is well received, she’ll purchase a food truck and expand as funding allows.

“There’s more food trucks every single summer in Missoula,” said Soelter. “There’s even a food truck pod in town that will help bring food trucks together. They’re a very low-risk way of owning a business.”

Soelter said the experience to pitch her business to the judges was helpful.

“Five months ago, I was at that very base level, and it’s awesome to come this far in this amount of time,” she said, crediting Blackstone LaunchPad at UM for helping her along. “For my next pitch, I want to be settled in. I got the first pitch jitters out of the way and I’m ready to do it again and be more confident next time.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com