SHERIDAN — Applications for the third annual Start-Up Challenge closed Sept. 13 and the Wyoming Technology Business Center received 39 applications, WTBC Sheridan Director Scot Rendall said. He is encouraged by the business ideas submitted this year.
The Start-Up Challenge began in 2017 to encourage local entrepreneurs to develop their business ideas through counseling, advice and a chance to compete for start-up funding.
Rendall and the panel of judges are currently reviewing the applications. The 10 semifinalists will be notified in the coming weeks, after which they will have the opportunity to flesh out their ideas with the judges, answer questions and dig into details, Rendall said.
The judging panel is composed of people who have started businesses themselves and understand what it takes.
“We try to attract people that have the ability to put themselves in the position of what an entrepreneur is going through in trying to launch their venture,” Rendall said.
Judges will then select five of the 10 as finalists. Those five finalists will receive counseling during the month of October until a pitch night at the WYO Performing Arts and Education Center Oct. 29.
Three winners who receive $5,000 each in seed funding will be announced at the reception. Winners also have the option to appeal to a $50,000 fund depending on their needs. They have one year to compile those appeals for a prototype, marketing, employees, etc., Rendall said.
The Start-Up Challenge is intended to highlight entrepreneurs in the community — even applicants who do not progress in the competition will be contacted and connected to resources to develop their business plan through the WTBC or elsewhere.
“The judges are looking to assess the merits of the idea such that if a person continues to pursue their idea that they will have a greater likelihood of success,” Rendall said.
Ideas that progress through the competition are based on consideration of the size of the target market, competitiveness, ability to contribute to Sheridan’s economic health and ability to grow to regional markets.
“That’s the purpose of our incubator,” Rendall said. “We’re trying to get people that can start businesses and contribute to the job base that we have in our area.”
A variety of business ideas have won the Challenge in the past two years, from oil and gas equipment businesses to cellphone apps, including a speech language pathology business Chelsea Paulus started after winning the Challenge last year.
Paulus developed an idea to work with children and schools, providing speech and language therapy services via video.
“She wanted to actually develop a model where she could help rural and underserved communities across the state and do it via teletherapy,” Rendall said.
After winning the Challenge, she contracted with a school district in Saratoga that was previously using services out of California but wanted to work with someone Wyoming-based. She lived up to the goal of developing an idea that can spread beyond Sheridan, Rendall said.
When she applied for the Start-Up Challenge, Paulus had five clients.
Today, she works with more than 50 children across the state, providing speech and language therapy services.
Sheridan has an entrepreneurial culture, he said, and wants to keep that momentum going through the Challenge and WTBC’s services. He wants to see people’s ideas and products out in the community.
Paulus said when she applied, she wasn’t sure the Start-Up Challenge judges would go for her idea but it was well-received from round one.
She received support throughout the competition and the judges agreed that speech and language teletherapy was a service the community needed.
Her business, Connect Speech Therapy LLC, grew more quickly than she anticipated. Paulus is currently at full capacity on her own, providing 45 hours of therapy per week in addition to planning and general business operations.
She hopes to hire another speech language pathologist soon and two to three more employees within the year — growing within Wyoming and then regionally.
Paulus was raised north of Chicago, where she had access to a plethora of resources. She also lived in Alaska, but Wyoming was the first place she lived where she found a disconnect between need and resources — like speech and language pathologists.
“If I didn’t step in and try to help these people, who will?” she asked.
As her business grows, she hopes to expand the definition of speech and language pathology such that children are provided with more holistic support in their lives — from social interactions to academics, reading and writing.
The counseling she received from WTBC improved her business plan by encouraging her to capitalize on teletherapy, she said.
Paulus knew there was a problem with accessing speech pathology services in Wyoming, and the WTBC connected her with people at the state level who helped bring her idea to life.
She said the seed money was helpful, but the knowledge and resources provided by the WTBC were equally as helpful.
The seed funding for winners and the money that supports the Challenge is provided through the WTBC, private donations and local organizations, Rendall said.
“You can say that all of my stakeholders have a hand in making our Challenge a success,” he said.
Promotion for the pitch night at the WYO, a public event, will begin when semifinalists are announced in the coming weeks.