Missoula entrepreneurs practice their pitch ahead of EPIC competition

Jennifer Sheets, founder StorySqares, pitches her writing tool at 1 Million Cups in downtown Missoula on Wednesday. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Several University of Montana students and upstart entrepreneurs pitched their ideas for a new business Wednesday morning to a roomful of friendly critics – a practice run for the main competition planned later this week.

From a recreational checklist developed by a computer science major to an educational writing app created by an MFA student, the ideas came ripe for development and their practice pitch served as a beta test for things to come.

“We’re using technology to revolutionize the way writing is taught,” said Jennifer Sheets, founder StorySqares, LLC. “Three out of four students cannot write proficiently at the third-grade level. That means they don’t meet the basic writing standards to advance to the next grade.”

Sheets, an MFA student, writer and educator, pitched her product as a “revolutionary writing tool” that’s changing the way kids learn to write. It works through storyboarding, enabling students to frame a story “square by square.”

She has already beta tested the product in classrooms.

“Schools are already using technology,” she said, citing the latest figures and her product’s potential for growth. “Rather than introducing an entirely new tool to the classroom, we’re using an approach widely used in the STEM fields and applying it to writing.”

The practice run, held by 1 Million Cups in downtown Missoula, served as a preview for Thursday night’s EPIC Pitch Competition, hosted by the College of Business and Blackstone LaunchPad at UM.

There, eight finalists selected from a field of 17 entrants will pitch their ideas and, in doing so, compete for more than $3,000 in cash prizes. For some, the funding could be enough to advance their product and get their business idea off the ground.

Elli Duckels, a computer science major and founder of Outdoor Gear Checklist, looks to offer users a new way to “create, maintain and optimize” their equipment needs based upon factors they deem to be most important, such as price or weight.

While other web-based platforms offer a similar tool, Duckels believes his is superior.

“Others offer form-style websites, but the problem with content like that is that tables are one of the most inefficient ways to relay information to the human mind, unlike a well-designed user-interface like OGC has,” said Duckels.

Duckels, originally is from Anaconda, said his product is designed to appeal to the hiking and backpacking community. Its functionality, however, could expand to include the hiking and fishing communities.

“As a computer science major, I have a strong understanding of how to develop a website like this,” said Duckels. “But for all the other resources OGC is going to need to be a success, I’ll have to acquire those. If I’m able to acquire some additional monetary resources, I can hire the developers to help me with this stuff.”

While Duckels looks to the outdoor industry, Theresa Simons is building a business that tackles food insecurity. She intends to place locally grown and organically certified foods in local schools, shelters and veterans homes.

Simons, founder of Shady Grove, recently purchased property in Stevensville, where she and her husband plan to start an orchard ripe with fresh fruits and nuts and other local vegetables.

“We want to give back to our community, our veterans centers, local schools – the school lunch program – and provide them with some fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said. “That’s the intent.”

While the concept isn’t new to Missoula, Simons believes Shady Grove brings a new twist to locally sourced food. Her business idea includes a greenhouse operation and a commercial dehydrator, allowing for year-round food production.

“In year one, we’d start out putting in the well, the drip irrigation and 750 trees,” she said. “We want to install a climate-controlled storage building and a functioning greenhouse, and a commercial dehydrator so we can do this year round.”

The EPIC Pitch Competition takes place Thursday, Dec. 7 at 6 p.m. in the Gilkey Building at UM.