While $60,000 in prize money went to the top contestants in the 10th annual Startup Challenge Monterey Bay, none of the three San Benito County businesses that made it to the finals were among the winners.
The event, held at Embassy Suites in Seaside, attracted over 100 applicants from a diverse range of business backgrounds, with 27 of those applicants advancing to the Venture Showcase on May 10. Contestants presented their business plans to judges in the morning, after which three contestants from each category—Student, Main Street, Social Venture and Venture—were chosen to compete in the afternoon’s final round.
While none took home prize money, three San Benito County businesses made it to the finals. DanceMinds, run by Veronica Vasquez, is a specialty dance program and consulting service for dance studios that competed in the Venture division, and JMM Dance, run by Raymond Garcia, provides educational dance programming for children with special needs and competed in the Social Venture division. Linda Lampe, owner of Worth Saving Mercantile and Thrift, a shop that helps support the local outreach center My Father’s House, was unable to participate in the event due to personal reasons, but was “thankful for the opportunity to have been a participant in this wonderful experience, and to have met so many inspiring people in the process.”
The Otter Tank, the final round that takes inspiration from the Shark Tank television show, gave each finalist the chance to present their business plan onstage in front of judges, business mentors, fellow entrepreneurs and community members. Otter Tank participants included Vanly, a tech company that allows homeowners to rent their driveways to vehicle dwellers in need of safe overnight parking; Standby Health, a software company that allows for same-day healthcare appointments after a patient has canceled; and Seaquoia, a Santa Cruz-based company providing wild kelp products for humans, livestock and agriculture.
Audience members had the chance to vote for their favorite Otter Tank startups by investing “otter dollars” in their favorite businesses. Plusone.network, a digital platform and physical network enabling consumers to harness technology for learning, working, playing and communicating, took the prize as the audience favorite.
Although the San Benito County finalists were not selected to participate in the Otter Tank, DanceMinds’ Vasquez said the experience helped her clarify her vision and to not sell herself short.
“My main takeaway was that I should be thinking bigger than I have been,” said Vasquez. “I’m going to start shooting bigger, and thinking bigger.”
Vasquez said she will use the feedback she received when she travels this summer to dance expos across the country to sell other studios on her programming.
As the judges went to their chambers to decide the winners, Craig Vachon, an angel investor with 30 years of tech experience, spoke to the crowd about the importance of entrepreneurs. He stressed the major responsibilities of running a business and highlighted the virtue of learning something new every day. His address capped an afternoon of inspiring presentations that recognized contestants as pioneers bravely edging their way into new markets.
The mood in the room was expectant as Brad Barbeau, executive director of CSUMB’s Institute for Innovation & Economic Development (IIED), announced the winners of each category.
Monterey Bay Food Tours, which offers walking food tours of Monterey’s restaurants and landmarks, won the Main Street division. New Wave Programs, an organization that provides meaningful educational programs that teach children strategies for social and emotional well-being, won the Social Venture division. The student category was won by Charge City, which turns traditional retail parking lots into charging stations for electric vehicles. Musician’s BASS, Inc., a business management software tool that enables independent artists to monetize and manage their careers, won the Venture division.
Aliza Hava, founder and CEO of Musician’s BASS, was a past participant of the Startup Challenge. She said that her experience two years ago helped her clarify her business plan in order to win the challenge this year.
Mary Jo Zenk, program director at IIED, considered the event a huge success.
“It’s so exciting to see the diversity of businesses, and the energy in the room,” she said. “We have so many returning businesses that competed one year and came back again. Our goal is to build the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the region, so people don’t have to drive to San Jose to find work. The more we support an atmosphere of entrepreneurialism, the more people will stay here.”
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