Have a business idea? Local competition awarding $25K for the best start-up ventures

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Christopher Niles Enneking participates in the 1st Annual Pitch Competition hosted by the entrepreneur group Douglas County CORE on Friday, April 21, 2023.

Lawrence and Douglas County are getting more serious about cultivating start-up businesses, and if you don’t believe it, there will be 25,000 examples to point to next month.

A pair of local organizations are teaming up to host the second annual Douglas County Pitch Competition, where entrepreneurs can pitch their ideas for new ventures to judges who will award $25,000 in prize money to the winners.

That $25,000 purse is up from $20,000 a year ago. The number of entrepreneurs who will be chosen to make pitches also is growing to 18, up from 12 a year ago. Local technology entrepreneur Kyle Johnson said the expanded competition is a sign that the community has crossed a threshold when it comes to understanding the importance of creating a good environment for start up businesses.

“What is really exciting to me is I feel like a lot of progress is possible,” said Johnson, who is one of the organizers of the Pitch Competition. “Before, we were still advocating for the need to have an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Now, I think people are on the same page that we need this.”

The idea of fostering entrepreneurs certainly isn’t a new concept in Lawrence. The Chamber, the KU Small Business Development Center, and KU Innovation Park all have had that as a big goal as part of their overall missions, and operate several initiatives related to it.

But back in 2022, Johnson and a handful of other entrepreneurs and supporters of new business ventures formed Douglas County CORE, which solely is focused on building that entrepreneurial ecosystem. Now, the group has partnered up with another similar organization: Black:30, which has a mission of “promoting economic growth in the BIPOC community by creating opportunities.”

The organizations will jointly host the Douglas County Pitch Competition, which is set for 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on April 25 at the Jayhawk Welcome Center, 1266 Oread Ave. If you have ever seen the television program “Shark Tank,” a pitch competition is similar — although the Douglas County event likely will be more genteel. There will be no back-biting negotiations, and no “You’re dead to me,” proclamations, in part because the judges won’t be making offers to purchase any company that is presenting.

Instead, the judges will listen to presentations from each of the 18 presenters, which will include nine entrepreneurs pitching technology-related ideas and nine who are pitching in the non-tech sector. At the end of the day, judges will compare notes and award $4,000 to the top presenter in both categories, $3,000 to the second place presenters, $2,500 to the third, $1,500 to the fourth and $300 to fifth through ninth.

Organizers used a combination of grants and private donors to raise the $25,000 prize pool, Johnson said.

“A lot of different folks came together to do it,” Johnson said, which he said speaks to people understanding the importance of improving Lawrence’s entrepreneurial climate.

“We have been evangelizing for years that this is really important,” said Johnson, who is the founder of the Lawrence-based technology firm Bixy. “It is a necessary part of economic development going forward. We have to grow our own going forward. We have to take advantage of this raw talent.”

Almost anyone with a business idea can apply to be part of the competition. In many cases, all the presenter has is an idea for a business, and some research to back up why it is a good one. However, existing businesses who have advanced past the idea stage and are trying to launch or grow their ventures also are eligible.

Anyone who applies for the competition is eligible to participate in more than a half-dozen training sessions leading up to the Pitch Competition. The first training session will be on Wednesday.

People interested in applying to participate in the Pitch Competition — or the training sessions — can do so online at douglascountycore.com/pitch-2024/.

But the one-day competition is just a small part of what Johnson and others hope is possible, especially now that Douglas County CORE has partnered with Black:30. The partnership brings more potential mentors, advisors and others into the fold. Being able to provide that one-on-advice and attention to budding entrepreneurs is a key goal, Johnson said.

Douglas County CORE received some city of Lawrence funding in 2023 to build a new website that allows any budding entrepreneur to register with the group. That registration is now also shared with the Black:30 organization. The hope is that, between the two groups, somebody will reach out to each entrepreneur to see if they need any particular type of assistance. From there, they might be directed to an upcoming training session, to one of the other organizations in town that help businesses, or it might spark a one-on-one meeting with a mentor.

The end result, Johnson hopes, is that people will take the next step to move their business ideas forward.

“Getting started is not that complicated, if you learn how to get started from people who have been there and done that,” Johnson said.


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