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In late June, Wyoming Business Council Executive Director Shawn Reese told ENDOW that the Wyoming Business Council is working to narrow its own focus to become an engine of economic diversification. Courtesy photo

CHEYENNE – What do trash collection devices in storm drains and remote speech therapy sessions have in common? They’re both ideas that Wyoming entrepreneurs turned into businesses, thanks to winning a startup challenge offered in Casper and Sheridan by the Wyoming Technology Business Center at the University of Wyoming.

Now residents of Laramie and Albany counties have the opportunity to win startup funds for their own business ideas through the new Southeast Wyoming Innovation Launchpad.

In order to win the SEWYIL competition, applicants have to convince a panel of judges that their business idea is the best solution for a problem shared by many people.

“We are looking for people who are trying to solve a problem that is not just something they have, but one that other people have, as well,” WTBC assistant director Fred Schmechel said. “It’s not about having a cool idea. It’s about having a cool problem.”

Filling out a simple five-question online application enters entrepreneurs in the contest. Applicants need to be able to define the problem they plan to solve and describe their solution – as well as their ideal customer. The application deadline for SEWYIL is Nov. 1, and Pitch Day, when all applicants get a chance to describe their startup idea to a panel of judges, will be in late January.

“It’s all about creating opportunities for themselves,” Schmechel said.

Though award amounts vary for each winner, and judges determine how much each startup gets, recipients can expect between $4,000 and $31,000 in startup funds. The target size for most grants is between $20,000 and $25,000.

“It’s important to note that this isn’t prize money,” Schmechel said. Winners have to use their money for actual business startup costs.

Collaborating with Forward Greater Cheyenne and Laramie County Community College is helping WTBC find partners in the community and spread the word about the challenge.

Schmechel said the Cheyenne banking community is putting up most of the prize money for local winners, but the WTBC is also still seeking private donors. The Wyoming Business Council is supporting the challenge by offering funds to cover various costs, such as those associated with renting venue space for Pitch Day and payroll money for interns of the startups.

Other community partners will share expert big-topic business advice to the challenge winners in what Schmechel calls group therapy sessions. He noted some of the topics will include technology for startups with Microsoft’s Dennis Ellis, intellectual property protection and business structures with Hathaway and Kunz’s Matt Kaufman, human resources law with Amanda Esch of Davis & Cannon, accounting with David Pope of DAPCPA and business insurance with Rick Wilcox of Farmers Insurance.

Winners are also entitled to individual business counseling, which varies based on the needs of each entrepreneur.

“Every problem they go after is unique,” Schmechel said. “We typically try to steer them toward a path that can scale up. We do some executive coaching to build them into the leaders they need to be to run companies.”

Though the WTBC startup challenge is new to Cheyenne, they have been distributing startup funds in other communities around the state previously. University of Wyoming students have competed for startup grants through the WTBC’s Fisher Innovation Launchpad for more than a decade, and the SEWYIL is based on this startup challenge model. Casper and Sheridan have both benefited from startup challenges, as well.

SEWYIL now reaches Laramie residents who didn’t have a UW connection.

Laramie currently has 48 companies in the WTBC Incubator, which is a building with office and lab space and access to a variety of expert business mentors. Those Laramie companies and the ones launched in Casper and Sheridan by the WTBC have generated nearly 100 jobs in those communities.

In Casper, WTBC has helped launch 12 successful companies over the past three years.

“We only launch about three per year,” Schmechel said. “Last year, the five finalists who pitched all started up within five weeks and were working on their companies full time. Four have each raised more than a million dollars in financing.”

One notable business that has come out of the Casper program is Frog Creek Partners. It work can be seen in Cheyenne near the Depot, where they installed gutter bins. These water filtration devices have helped collect litter from storm drains that otherwise would have made its way into Crow Creek.

Another Casper-based business supported by WTBC startup funds is NU Locating, a company that started out helping property owners, contractors, engineers and municipalities locate underground utility lines, and has grown to include other services like void detection and concrete inspections.

In Sheridan, Chelsea Paulus was a 2018 startup challenge winner with her Connect Speech Therapy business. According to Sheridan WTBC Director Scot Rendall, Paulus is a speech language pathologist who sees clients both in person and remotely via teletherapy.

“It’s using technology to deliver services, especially to those in areas that are underserved or hard to get to,” Rendall said.

Local entrepreneurs who want to get an idea of what the January SEWYIL Pitch Day will look like can attend a similar Pitch Day event in Laramie on Oct. 24 in the university’s Wyoming Union Center Ballroom. Contestants will be pitching their startup ideas to a panel of judges made up of community members and experts from throughout the state. This free event will take place throughout the day, and the awards presentation begins at 4 p.m.

Elizabeth Sampson is a freelance journalist living in Cheyenne who has more than 12 years of experience. She can be reached by email at esampson78@gmail.com.

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