Education to eats: Student startup challenge draws next-gen businesses to competition

Jennifer Sheets secured the $15,000 first-place prize, as well as the People’s Choice award and its $3,500 purse, for her StorySquares business pitch at the 28th annual John Raffatto Business Startup Challenge at the University of Montana. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

When Jennifer Sheets first presented her idea for a web-based writing tutorial at 1 Million Cups back in December, her elevator pitch – by her own acknowledgment – needed a little fine tuning.

Mission accomplished.

Sheets nailed her StorySquares pitch on Friday night at the 28th annual John Raffatto Business Startup Challenge at the University of Montana, securing the $15,000 first-place prize, as well as the People’s Choice award and its $3,500 purse.

“When research tells us that three out of four students in the U.S. cannot write proficiently at their grade level, we know we have a major problem,” Sheets told the crowd. “StorySquares is a web-based platform for the classroom that uses storyboard templates to help students write stories or reports from beginning to end.”

Several hundred people, from bank executives to small business owners, packed the Gilkey Center auditorium for the annual event. Hosted by the College of Business at UM, the startup showcase serves as the largest opportunity in Montana for students attending any state university to present their business plans to a panel of judges.

With more than $50,000 in prizes on the line – and another $50,000 in in-kind contributions – the stakes were high and the nerves, for some, proved a little frayed. But that may be part of the learning experience.

“This competition highlights the skills and work ethic that’s required to be successful in life,” said Jenni Graff, the economic development director at Missoula Economic Partnership. “It’s exciting to see what other solutions for our lives will come out of this competition.”

Those wide-ranging solutions came in all shapes, from a proposal to make use of food waste on college campuses by Freats (free eats), to distributing the “next great party-game experience,” as proposed by Game Ink.

Aaron Benjamin of Ice Viper Hockey secured third place for his proposal to manufacture a high-stability street hockey puck “that turns asphalt into ice,” while Craig Koller tied for the position with his plans to launch a web-based platform to help contractors manage labor-union wage calculations.

Several business plans dealt in the world of technology, including Morphose Exercise Systems.

“Believe it or not, physical therapists still communicate home exercise programs through stick-figure drawings,” said Ari Ronick, a doctoral student in physical therapy. “We’re seeking to fix this problem through the development of a web-based program that allows physical therapists to share home exercises as 3D videos with their patients, understandable from any angle.”

Ronick, who secured second place, said PT clinics lose roughly $150,000 annually due to missed appointments and patients who drop out of care. Add it up and it represents a $6 billion hit to the industry.

Like many of the business founders, Ronick saw an opportunity in the trends and statistics, something he’ll target by launching Morphose and making its offerings accessible from any computer or smartphone.

“Home exercises prescribed by the PT are vital to recovery,” Ronick said. “The problem is, most people don’t perform their home exercise programs because they’re difficult to follow and they’re confusing.”

Evergreen Game & Hobby is a Montana-based company that looks to provide an expansive inventory of board and video gaming, comic and hobby supplies to customers in its targeted market. (Missoula Current)

UM has hosted the startup challenge since 1989, showcasing new products and innovations presented by students each spring. Several existing businesses can trace their roots to the event, including Chilton Skis, which won third place at least year’s event, and Bahai Brazilian Cuisine, better known as Five on Black, which won the Lifestyle Prize in 2011.

“It’s great to see our students explore new and creative ways to tackle some interesting problems,” said UM President Seth Bodnar, who attended the event with his wife, Chelsea. “There’s a lot of great ideas here, and I’m so impressed with the students and their ability to stand up and pitch their ideas succinctly and clearly.”