From left, Jeremy Wall, third place winner and Founder of Lumenus, second place winners and co-founders of Hermetia Pro Evan Selander and John Paul, and first place winner and co-founder of Mechanodontics James Wratten, and Valley Innovators Chairman Steve Miller. Photos by Frank Lopez
Written by Frank Lopez
Fresno-based business incubator Valley Innovators held its first-ever pitch contest at the Tower Theater Wednesday.
Fifteen startups pitched business plans to a panel of judges to win prizes and marketing exposure, including $50,000 in total cash for the top three finalists. Winners will also gain access to workshops to help them improve their pitch and business strategy.
The first place prize was $25,000, $15,000 for second place and $10,000 for third.
The judging panel consisted of entrepreneur Jamin Brazil, president of PureSpectrum; co-founder of Agrarian Andriana Majarian; serial entrepreneur Matt Tymn; executive coach Patricia Patton and founder of Blue Dolphin Engineering Mark Jackson.
The first place prize went to Los Angeles startup Mechanodontics, which aims to revolutionize dental braces by placing them behind teeth, which will shorten treatment time and allow for easier cleaning and more comfort.
“It’s an honor [to win]. I’m surprised,” said James Wratten, co-founder of Mechanodontics. “I’m really appreciative and this is definitely going to help us get our braces out to more patients and really help us grow.”
The second place prize went to HermetiaPro, Inc., a company started by two Fresno State Students that aims to lead in commercial organic insect farming using sustainable methods to produce insect-based protein for animal feed.
Third place prize went to Los Angeles-based Lumenus, which makes “internet of things” wearable safety products designed to save lives, from cyclists to soldiers.
Nearly 100 people applied to compete, with around 20 more attempting to apply days after the cut-off date. Applicants applied from all over the country, one from as far as New York, and one from Iowa who became a finalist.
Steve Miller, chairman of Valley Innovators and pesident and CEO of Fresno First Bank, said that he hopes this first pitch contest will bring more attention from Silicon Valley and other investors from outside the Central Valley.
“We got off to a great first year start. Now we can go out and say, ‘we made this happen,’” Miller said. “We really need some big influencers to come out alongside of us. The business community is tight here, they watch each others backs, and we just need more people to come out here.”
The pitch ideas from the 15 finalists ranged from Merced kettlebell studio G-Fit, to a sport apparel company based in Fresno called UltroSport, and Intent Wave, a personalized artificial intelligence technology that measures and analyzes your activities, emotions and influences throughout the day.
Though not every applicant won a prize, investors will still be going over the list of pitches to see which ideas might be worth a deeper look.
“One of the things that has always stood out in Fresno is that we are direct communicators — we’re kind of blunt,” said Jennifer Lopez founder and CEO of Valley Innovators. “But we are so community focused, and you add community with grit, and it’s just a winning personality. If you add that to the business world, how could we not be successful?”