Entrepreneurs bring slate of new ideas to 10th Startup Weekend
The 10th annual Startup Weekend Nov. 10-12 brought out seven teams and about 45 participants spending 58 hours on a weekend researching and vetting new business ideas with total strangers at the Boardroom in Downtown Anchorage
The Boardroom, a co-working space that’s become known as a hive of entrepreneurial activity in the state, hosted the slate of emerging business ideas that by Sunday night ranged from cultural awareness gifting for corporations to new tech apps to financial startups.
Startup Weekend offers a “safe place to fail,” said organizer Ky Holland, founder of four startups and a business consultant. The weekend is a chance for would-be entrepreneurs to find out if their business idea is valid. They’ll learn new skills from mentors and find potential co-founders.
Unlike the annual Alaska Business Plan Competition, the ideas don’t need to be market-tested, but they do need to meet the criteria from a rather intimidating lineup of judges: Mead Treadwell, former lieutenant governor and president of Pt Capital; Bob Kaufman, founder and CEO of Alaska Channel, digital media expert and management consultant; Sioux-z Humphrey Marshall, the innovation team manager at the Municipality of Anchorage and the first winner of the Alaska Business Plan Competition in 2000; Katherine Jernstrom, founder of The Boardroom and fund manager at Alyeska Venture Management; and Thom Holder, vice president of business development and operations with CIRI.
FutrSelf (First place): Ben Matheson, a former public radio news reporter and web development specialist with Alaska Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, and his team envisioned an online platform integrated with on-boarding processes at small businesses. The group realized they wanted to answer the need for Americans’ short- and medium-term savings through a venture called FutrSelf.
“One statistic that really hit home for us is that 47 percent of Americans would need to borrow or sell something to come up with $400 in a pinch,” Matheson said. “This, combined with other money stressors can be a cost not just for the individual but for their workplace. We see small businesses suffering from increased turnover and absenteeism, and a market that isn’t pursued as aggressively as larger companies.”
The same day that they fill out their tax forms and direct deposit information, FutrSelf would auto-enroll employees in a simple savings program that will automatically deduct a small portion of the employee’s paycheck and route it to an online bank or brokerage.
FutrSelf wouldn’t be in the long-term retirement business to start off but would want the employee to have a solid emergency fund and access to it for when life throws a curveball. Investing can come after the foundation is built, he said.
Matheson was joined by Mike Casti, a business development expert with Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority; Emily Niebuhr, a business consultant, and Kavita Jattansingh, a National Weather Service forecaster/researcher.
HostMore (Second place, tie): Lorena Knapp, Jaron Saturnino and Erin Baca came up with a plan to package real estate services for down payments for a second home.
HostMore would package the home-buying process much as Airbnb packages its renting room platform services. They’ve identified a formula or “sweet spot” for how many nights a room would need to be rented out for profitability and risk. The startup would offer other supports to help them be successful, said Baca, an operations manager for Ascent, a program management firm that works with large capital projects.
Knapp, a TEDx motivational speaker and medic helicopter pilot, was a lead presenter. Saturnino is a freelance graphics designer.
FitMood (Third place, tie): Led by Tasha Webster, an MBA student at Alaska Pacific University whose background is in mental health and social work, Dana Herndon, Ben Kellie and Ciara Zervantian came up with a mood tracker that is recorded on an Apple iwatch.
The problem FitMood wants to solve is that one out of five people in the U.S. are believed to suffer from some kind of mental health disorder like anxiety, depression or other conditions. Yet, only 36 percent will receive help for it.
This startup would provide data input on the person wearing the tracker by recording lumens (sunny, rainy, cold, cloudy), heart rate, barometric pressure, noise and other data. It could then provide information on how those factors impact mood to help people become more self-aware, Webster said.
This group won second place, tying with HostMore.
Dawn Patrol (Third place, People’s Choice): Jeff Levine, a programmer/developer at Levinology Labs, and his team came up with an app that would provide better, broader information for backcountry adventurers.
“This gets knowledge into their own hands from data that is available, LIDAR mapping, snow density around ski facilities and other information through a unique software,” Levine said.
It also could save lives. Currently, there’s no technology that exists that gives high quality snow pack information, Levine said. The startup conducted a survey and found that experienced backcountry users want better data and they’re willing to pay for it.
“They’ve spent thousands of dollars in equipment and don’t believe there’s enough quality information,” Levine said.
Dawn Patrol would offer an app that displays LIDAR readings on the snow pack density and how the snow has moved recently.
Levine, Ryan Witten, Ian Lang, Lee and Lucas Brown, Kayla Nowak, won third place and People’s Choice.
Wayfarer Travel: Samona Norombaba, Reed Lane and Lisa Nkonge came up with a tech platform to connect locals offering unique experiences to tourists and locals.
Small tour operators offering a more intimate outdoor experience, such as individuals who want to offer a fat tire biking trip on Portage Glacier, would receive reviews from previous users, much like Airbnb, and allows tourists to connect to a variety of niche experiences.
Culture Story: 2017 Miss Alaska Alyssa London, a Tlingit and 2012 Stanford University graduate, teamed up with Elana Habib, Kelsey Schober and Allison Baker at Startup Weekend. Though London said she knew from her professional work as a motivational speaker and consultant that corporate gift giving could use new conceptualizing, she hadn’t know specifics until attending Startup, when the team came up with a viable plan for selling the concept to corporations.
The $90 million annual corporate gift-giving market could be better served if each gift were tailor-made for that business. The visual London used as an example was a Native gift box designed with a Tlingit motif.
Ak Retro Sales: Alicia Halla and Jason Scheunemann, both members of the 176th Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, teamed up with Gem Thomas and Emily Sekona to satisfy a yearning 30-something-year-olds may feel about the original days of video gaming.
Their startup would sell a game controller Retro Entertainment System to families and gamers. It would make vintage games such as Atari and Pac Man available in an easy format, the controller.
As the winning team, FutrSelf is gearing up for the regional competition, a virtual pitch that is due by the end of the week. This is the beginning of Global Entrepreneurship Week, with 200 startup weekends around the world.
“We have a lot more research and validating to do before the more concrete steps,” Matheson said. “We’re talking with local small businesses all week and taking a bit of a deep dive into this world.”
Naomi Klouda can be reached at naomi,firstname.lastname@example.org.