The Cal Poly Small Business Development Center for Innovation and the Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Softec, and the Economic Vitality Corporation hosted their fourth annual TechPitch competition at the Alex Madonna Expo Center last week. Applicants pitched their businesses for the chance to win the $5,000 cash prize, professional consulting services, and the opportunity to present to Tech Coast Angels and SLO Seed Ventures.
The finalist startups were –
- FuelBox Inc., which creates the ultimate charging solutions for mobile devices;
- Salty Girl Seafood Inc., a sustainable seafood distribution company that bypasses the traditional supply chain to ship seafood directly from fishermen to restaurants and markets;
- RVPlusYou LLC, which has developed a website for recreational vehicle enthusiasts, owners, and renters that links renters with owners who want to make extra money by renting their vehicles;
- Superior Solutions Manufacturing Inc., which has developed a removable liftgate for pickups;
- Tandemech Engineering, which has developed wall-climbing robots to collect valuable data and increase the efficiency and accuracy of industrial inspection; and
- The Cardboard Guys, which uses corrugated cardboard to make children’s furniture that is eco-friendly, lightweight, inexpensive, durable, and fun.
The winning start-up was SLO-based Superior Solutions Manufacturing, which is preparing to enter production with the LiftGator, a trailer hitch mounted liftgate which can be installed in less than three minutes and is capable of lifting 1000lbs up the bed of the truck. Check out the video!
As Cal Poly’s Entrepreneur-In-Residence for the new business incubator in SLO, I know the team well, and the path they followed from coming up with the idea a few years ago to winning a contest this big is inspiring to the entrepreneur in many of us.
The genesis for the removal liftgate was a junior design class for mechanical engineering students at Cal Poly. The concept was spec’d out on a computer among three students but never created as a physical product.
The following quarter, the three students signed up for an independent study class and created the first prototype. Assuming their design was awesome enough to win, the students entered the “Innovation Quest” contest, which had a $15,000 first prize. Although the liftgate concept did not win any of the awards, through the process the team realized how much better their design could be. The students spent a year improving the design and applied for the SLO HotHouse Summer Accelerator program for new businesses. They were accepted in the program and spent most of the time focusing on creating a profitable business around their design and not on further refinements on their design. They followed the single-page business plan concept and interviewed over 100 potential customers for the product. This really motivated the team, as many of the potential customers were so impressed with the demo prototype that they wanted to buy the prototype rather than waiting for production of the finished product.
This process sounds much easier than it was! In reality, the two founders, Justin Russo and Marty Affentranger, had to persevere through many obstacles, including being creative with multiple credit cards to pay for living expenses until product sales could bring in money. From the beginning, they had the mentality that they were “creating a business” and not a typical risky “start-up.” Both said they were raised to always finish what they start even when times get tough, and this philosophy is really paying off for them.
According to the judges, the number one reason Superior Solutions was chosen as the winner was the credibility of the product and the people behind it. This credibility was gained over multiple years of design modification, but equally important was the founders’ ability to create a profitable business in the next few months, with the sales of new liftgates enabling the two to purchase the inventory to build and sell more in the following month.
Very soon Superior Solutions will deliver the first removal liftgate (beyond their prototype), and the production ramp will begin!