Fans of ‘Shark Tank’ would have felt right at home at the Evanston Startup Showcase presentation on Tuesday evening, part of Evanston Entrepreneurship Week. Five startup businesses presented their concepts to a panel of four successful entrepreneurs and an audience of about one hundred potential investors, friends and interested parties. Everyone involved has a connection to Evanston, either as a resident or because their businesses are here.
The moderator for the night was Patrick Hughes, a successful entrepreneur and the Founder/CEO of Inclusion=Solutions, an Evanston-based business whose mission is to develop and supply practical products to make inclusion possible for people with disabilities or the elderly. Patrick’s outgoing personality, quick humor and take charge attitude kept the presentations on schedule without ever getting tedious.
The ground rules were straightforward: 5 minutes for the pitch, 5 minutes of Q&A from the panel, 5 minutes of audience Q&A. The five lucky presenters were selected from nearly 100 submissions.
First up was Jono Kupferberg, CEO/Co-Founder of STS Footwear, a company founded on the belief that every fan needs a footwear option. Jono showcased many creative iterations designed by Director of Design/Co-Founder Isaiah Smith, and the two men discussed their patent-pending manufacturing concept. They need $50,000 to fund their initial launch. The panel asked a lot of questions about their market research, licensing agreements, pricing and other metrics. In the world of branded products and sports-related wearables, STS Footwear may have something unique. They hope to authorize their first production run by mid 2015.
The second presentation was by Brian Hill, Co-Founder of Jail Education Solutions. Of the five presentations, this was the one I found most captivating. Using customized tablet technology and an educational platform called Edovo, they provide intuitive educational courses to incarcerated people who are rewarded for learning. Jail Education Solution’s mission is to unlock the potential of the 12 million Americans imprisoned annually and reduce rates of recidivism. Their tablet system is already being tested in six institutions; others are signing up each month. It’s an amazing feat thus far and they are just getting started. I think we will hear great things about this company.
The third presentation was a needs-based app called DINE., conceived by three 19-year old Northwestern University students (Luke, McKenna and Garrett) who want to create a better algorithm for restaurant selection tailored to the diner’s specific needs. The app, still in development, will propose three choices to ease selection rather than present unfiltered information in the style of Yelp and Zagat’s. The panel of experts enthused over the presentation, which was impressive, but even more so given the presenters’ ages.
Fourth up was Jennifer Alexander from Chapín Coffee. Their motto is ‘Fuel your day with purpose,’ and for every bag of Chapín Coffee sold, three meals are donated to malnourished Guatemalan children through Feed the Dream. Chapín Coffee sustains local farmers by purchasing only Fair Trade Certified coffee, protects the environment by sourcing organically grown coffee, and helps local women artisans maintain their craft skills by purchasing woven gift bags. Jennifer is a great presenter and the audience responded positively with ideas and contacts. For those of you looking for lovely holiday gifts, look no further than a Chapín Coffee Subscription.
The final presentation was the most fun and the one that generated the most audience involvement. Kenny Johnson, the inventor of patent-pending Funny Gloves, is Evanston-born and raised, a proud graduate of ETHS and a vocal promoter of everything the city has to offer. He has created a toy—think of a large pair of talking puppets used by two people to play catch together—that gets kids out of the house to exercise. Anyone over the age of about three years old can play and one size fits most. Kenny is an effervescent presenter: he’s already pitched the idea to the actual Shark Tank folks and is waiting to hear if he’s been selected. Just based on his story and pitch, I think Kenny is well on his way to reaching his goals. He’s created something new and has the passion and drive to do whatever it takes to see it through. The gloves are available online for $25 a pair.
Kudos to the presenters and panelists, the moderator, Rotary International for hosting and First Bank & Trust for sponsoring, the City of Evanston and Northwestern University for their support. It was a wonderful and interesting evening, and hopefully part of an annual tradition.