Igniting Asheville: Big ideas competition aimed to spark entrepreneurism

Michael Shore won the Ignite Asheville ideas competition by presenting his BarberWind Turbine company as capable of reshaping the renewable energy industry. Photo by Jake Frankel.

Some of Asheville’s brightest entrepreneurial thinkers came together May 15 to pitch ventures that could transform the human experience.

Gathered at The Orange Peel, representatives of 10 innovative small businesses explained how their work could help “Ignite Asheville,” sparking jobs and enhancing quality of life.

Organized by the Economic Development Coalition for Asheville-Buncombe County, the event aimed to help the city “become a hub for world-class companies,” said host Josh Dorfman, the coalition’s director of entrepreneurship development.“The speakers here are blazing that trail.”

Billed as a “big idea competition,” each speaker had only 5 minutes on stage to convince the 100 or so attendees of their businesses’s potential. At the end, attendees cast anonymous votes for their favorite idea. The winner, BarberWind Turbines, received $1,000 towards its goal of building cheaper, more efficient wind turbines.
In his pitch, BarberWind CEO Michael Shore said they’re developing a way to harness wind power without a gearbox, “bringing something very profound, very disruptive into the market.”

Shore previously co-founded FLS Energy, a local solar development company that has grown in the last six years into a $75 million business with about 50 employees. His ongoing work in the renewable energy sector is inspired by a passion for trying to make society more sustainable, he said. Although global warming poses great risks, the threat also has the potential to “bring everyone together” for positive change, he said. One of the secrets to success, “is people want to belong to causes greater than themselves,” he said. “We are in for an incredible ride.”

BarberWind’s first turbine prototypes should be complete later this year, he said.

The second-place company, Outrider USA, received $500. The Fletcher-based business, which builds electric trikes, made headlines last month for holding one of the area’s most successful Kickstarter campaigns, raising $126,231 in only 30 days to help fund development of a new all-terrain electric cycle for people with disabilities.

Co-owner Jesse Lee said the business is also motivated by environmental ideals. The plan to build electric trikes came out of his years as a bicycle commuter at Appalachian State University. His advice to fellow entrepreneurs for raising capital and finding costumers: “find the people who believe in what you believe in.”

No other Ignite Asheville speaker was awarded any money, but they did garner praise from those using Twitter to follow the event. Rich Orris tweeted, “Props to all the folks coming up with big ideas and having the guts to get up in front of a room.”

The other participants were:

• Mariano deGuzman of Appalatch, an outdoor apparel company that is using a combination of local fibers and cutting edge 3D printing technology to create custom-fit clothing. The ultimate goal of the company is “to create hope and opportunity” by revitalizing the region’s once thriving textile industry.

• Jackson Anderson of Blue Blaze Soda & Syrup Co., hand-producing all-natural soda syrups containing more antioxidants and fewer calories than typical sodas. Anderson said his company wants to put Asheville on the map as a source of quality beverages other than beer.

• Jay Schauer of HotWax, a web development company that hopes to “unleash a world of creativity” by “completely changing the way websites are built.” HotWax makes building websites easier than ever before, said Schauer, allowing the company to “shake up a billion dollar industry.”

• Angela Newnam of Knock Out!, a clothing company specializing in panties that are made from special fabrics that she said are extra comfortable and dry. “It’s a simple idea – to make better underwear,” she said, noting that in just a few years the local company has already sold 150,000 pairs of panties in 500 retail locations, employing 50 workers.

• Sarah Benoit of JB Media Institute, which offers a new in-person training program for online marketing. The company, she said, wants to help create a local culture of “shared success.” “Learning to market on the Internet is like learning to dance. You have to learn the steps as well as the art,” she said. “We want our students to become the P. Diddys of Internet marketing. … learning the steps and becoming Internet rockstars.”

• Marty Bauer of The Iron Yard, which is planning to open a Green Tech Accelerator in Asheville to help stimulate startups and environmentally-minded technology businesses. “Innovation in the Southeast used to look like North Korea,” he said. “It wasn’t happening.” But he said that’s started changing in recent years. “Asheville has the right business environment … the right quality of life to attract world class entrepreneurs from around the world and we want to be part of it.”

• Clark Harris of LoLo, whose new technology enables users to transform their credit or debit card into a rewards program supporting local businesses. The greatest challenge so far, he said, is getting the word out. But eventually, he thinks the company could help foment “a cultural evolution,” he said. “Our aim is to provide a tool to propel local communities. … You can’t mass produce a local vibe.”

• Ty Hallock of Trusted Sharing, an application-based social media venture that he says facilitates “deeper, more valuable conversations” than other social media tools. He hopes those conversations will ultimately empower people and their communities. “We care about social problems,” he said.

As the event drew to a close, Dorfman told the audience he hoped the presenters’ ideas would inspire them as they chart their own entrepreneurial journeys. “We want to be inspired and enthused and passionate and take what we learn here back and apply them to our own lives and projects,” he said.

About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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