Chamber holds pitch competition, showcasing new ideas and igniting opportunities


Big ideas were given new life Thursday evening as the Jackson County Chamber hosted its inaugural pitch competition inspired by the popular business reality show “Shark Tank” but with a little twist.

This competition was called SPARK Tank to highlight a unity of community resources toward a greater impact that will spark new ideas and opportunities.

“We can’t wait to see these ideas blossom and watch these innovators take them to the next level,” said Joe Rust, project manager for SPARK Jackson County. “They all have a great community behind them.”

Rust said the goal is to make Jackson County the No. 1 rural county to start a business through the SPARK Jackson County initiative.

Seventeen local entrepreneurs and innovators submitted an idea they would like to develop into a business model. The ideas were then reviewed by a panel of judges to determine the six finalists.

The finalists then had 5 minutes to pitch their business idea to a different panel of SPARK judges, who determined a runner-up and a winner of the competition. The runner-up received $5,000, and the winner received $10,000.

The upstairs room at Rails Craft Brew & Eatery in downtown Seymour was electric with excitement as community members and the finalists prepared their presentations before the competition began.

One of the finalists, Stephanie Strothmann, owner of Purple Shamrock Farm, said the process had been a super exciting and humbling experience.

Strothmann has independently owned her dog treat business, I.P.A. Bites, for eight years, and she says now is the time to grow. Using all-natural ingredients, such as spent mash from a local brewery, eggs from her own chickens, natural peanut butter and flour, she has sold around 800 bags every year. With limited resources, however, she has not been able to increase her productivity or marketing.

Strothmann said she would use the prize fund to purchase a commercial mixer, a large-capacity food dehydrator and a stainless steel table to increase her productivity with the hope of taking her treats nationally.

“I will probably fall to my knees if I win or even just receive runner-up, and if not, I will be just as happy for the other winners,” she said. “I try not to let self-doubt get in the way or think I am not good enough. This night is about encouraging others to start looking toward the future and gaining the courage to grow.”

In a total shock later in the evening, Strothmann received the runner-up position and received a $5,000 check for her business model.

“Every small business or startup starts with an amazing story, and I like to say mine started with four chickens,” she said.

Another finalist, Nadia Herrera Luna, who presented her business idea called NH by Nadia Herrera, said she was ecstatic when she found out she was a finalist. She said she learned a lot from the experience.

She pitched an idea that would offer local access to dresses and services for those planning quinceañera celebrations. Widely celebrated amongst the Latino communities, the quinceañera marks an important milestone for a girl when she turns 15 as it symbolizes her entrance into womanhood.

Herrera said the closest places offering services for quinceañera is Indianapolis and Louisville, Kentucky, which often involves families spending a lot of time and resources traveling to plan the special day.

Her idea was to act as a consultant in finding everything families would need for the special day to save them time and resources.

Herrera said this tradition of celebration is not just for Mexico but also is celebrated in other countries, such as Colombia and El Salvador. She said she would use the funds to market and advertise her business in hopes to serve the large Latino community in Jackson County.

Herrera now will be able to take her idea to the next level as she was announced the winner of SPARK Tank later in the evening, receiving a $10,000 check.

“I have my whole community here supporting me tonight, and I just want to thank the chamber and everyone for making this possible,” she said.

The finalists had the opportunity to receive help from experienced coaches to help them develop and refine their idea.

These coaches were Susan Batchelder, a clinical assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Indiana University Kelley School of Business; Mike Fulkerson, an entrepreneurship ecosystem navigator with Southeast Indiana Business Development Center; and Cy Megnin, vice president of Elevate Ventures.

Fulkerson said he was paired up with two of the finalists and helped them refine their pitch by providing them with industry and demographic information they could use in their presentation.

“It’s so important for those wanting to go into business to not go into it blindly,” he said. “Lean into those local agencies, like the Jackson County Chamber and the Southeast Indiana Business Development Center, that can share so much necessary information. Always remember to educate yourself before going into anything.”

Before Dan Robison, master of ceremonies for the event and director of the Jackson County Chamber, introduced the panel of SPARK judges, he said he was amazed by the turnout and the support by the community.

“Seeing the energy in here tonight and the potential these innovators are bringing to the table is exciting,” he said. “We are confident this will be an annual thing.”

In front of the room sat a row of judges in comfortable chairs ready to hear what the finalists brought to the competition.

The judges were Mark Dennis with Dennis & Blish CPA, Karen Dringenburg with Blue & Co., Eddie Murphy, president of SpaceGuard Products, Alex Oleson of The Veridus Group in Indianapolis, Raquel Pasillas, founder and owner of Seymour Healthy Zone, and Andy Royalty, founder and president of Royalty Roofing and TDAK Development.

Other finalists included Brian Snow, Jessica Bowman, Jane Ellery and Dr. Nathan Otte.

Snow pitched bringing the film industry into Jackson County through a film and television lot he is currently building by capitalizing on the 30% tax incentive that has been brought by Indiana Economic Development Corp.

Ellery spoke about a co-working space in Ewing she is currently renovating that will be utilized for entrepreneurs, out-of-town visitors and others needing a place for connection through a makerspace.

Bowman pitched her idea of providing customized pork cut boxes through networking with local businesses and markets and having the ability to provide meat on demand for customers wanting specialized cuts of pork.

Otte talked about his idea to start a school-based vision clinic so kids who fail vision screenings are able to get the vision care they need right there at the school. He said with this solution, it would remove barriers, such as the lack of follow-up appointments, and improve scholastic performance amongst kids.

In a complete surprise during the awards ceremony, Murphy announced his company would invest $5,000 into Otte’s idea for a school-based vision clinic to take it to the next level.

It was evident that evening by the competitors who gave it their all that it only takes a little courage to spark the next big idea.

The SPARK Tank competition and awards were made possible by a Community Collaboration Fund grant from Indiana Economic Development Corp.

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