Ben Franklin’s BIG IDEA CONTEST winners announced

 In Blair County, Cambria County, entrepreneur, News, Somerset County

To help kick off the Startup Alleghenies initiative, this year Ben Franklin’s BIG IDEA contest targeted the counties located in the Southern Alleghenies and Central PA. The response was amazing! In less than two months, nearly 2,000 people visited the landing page and more than 100 uploaded the application. It was a difficult job, but out of all those who expressed interest, we narrowed down the pool of contestants to ten finalists.

Hunter Swisher and his company, Phospholutions, wins first place for their development of products that control the release of fertilizer in turf.

At an exciting event held at the Bottle Works, a panel of distinguished judges heard pitch presentations from a pool of very strong competitors. At the end of the evening, they awarded four cash prizes: First Place: $25,000: Second Place; $15,000; Third Place: $7,500 and a People’s Choice Award: $2,500.

In addition to the $25,000, the First Place winner received a pre-seed grant from Ben Franklin valued at up to $10,000; a one-year pass to Ben Franklin’s eMarketing Learning Center seminars valued at  $3,000; and a free consult (and proposal prep), valued at $3,000 on how to access Federal R&D grant money from the Innovation Partnership.

Ten entrepreneurs from across the region were showcased on Thursday during the the final round of Ben Franklin’s 2017 Big Idea Contest held at Bottle Works in Johnstown’s Cambria City neighborhood. Debbie Prosser, Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission’s director for business development, said the final presentations were amazing. “They were fabulous,” Prosser said. “I was impressed with all 10 of them. Very different and unique ideas, all with great potential,” said Prosser.

Before the winners were announced, those in attendance were able to mix and mingle while the judges deliberated. Although the winner had not yet been announced, many of the finalists said they already felt like winners. Big Idea finalist David Mixon of Clearfield County said the education he gained while participating in the contest was incredible. Cambria County finalists Justin Capoullez and Heather Moyer both agreed that there was much value in the experience they gained during the contest. “I think today went very well,” Capoullez said. “There is a rich well of talent that hasn’t been drilled into in this area between Penn State and Pittsburgh, and I think an event like this really showcases the talent, the brightness and ingenuity of the college students and young adults in this area.”

Moyer said, “I thought the opportunity to present and get questions from the judges was pretty insightful. I also liked hearing the other presentataions and the diversity of the different ideas that were pitched. It’s great to see the community assets that foster innovation being featured.”

First Place was awarded to Hunter Swisher and his company, Phospholutions, for their development of products that control the release of fertilizer in turf.

Second Place was awarded to Heather Moyer and her company, Crossroads Consulting, for their development of testing devices that better predict and prevent slip and fall accidents in the workplace.

Third Place and also the “People’s Choice Award” went to Mark Kasterko with MT Arms. His company developed a device that secures an officer’s firearm while he/she is restraining a person involved in criminal activity.

Third Place and also the “People’s Choice Award” went to Mark Kasterko (second from left) with MT Arms.

Mark Kasterko, owner of MT Arms opening in Somerset Township, invented an apparatus that attaches to an officer’s chest and holds a shotgun, which allows the officer to use his hands.

“Then it’s readily available on your chest,” he said. “You can pop it off and you’re ready to go again.”

Kasterko has more than 25 years of experience in law enforcement, so that personal experience heavily influenced his invention.

“It will be (for sale) shortly,” he said. “I’ve got one more prototype that I want to finish first. This one will turn and rotate so you can adjust it to wherever you want it.

“We’ll get it to the police agencies around and the prisons before I take it nationwide.”

With his prize money, Kasterko said, he will buy software and tools to develop his invention and get it mass produced.

He said he wants to keep product development in Somerset County.

“I’ve had people say you could take it to China and you could make a lot of money,” he said. “Well, I don’t want to do that.”

This year’s judging panel included a past winner of the BIG IDEA contest. In 2004, with the help of the St. Francis Small Business Development Center, Mr. Mike Stohon submitted a winning application and took home first prize for his company, In-Shore Technologies. Today that company, which is a full service technology consulting firm, employs dozens of people in the Johnstown region.

Allen Higbee, entreprenuer and president of the Young Professionals of the Alleghenies,also  served as one of several judges for the final round. Higbee said the pool of talent that was showcased was incredible. “I think all of the finalists were absolutely deserving of what they were awarded,” Higbee said. “MT Arms is going to help make the area better, Crossroads Consulting will help with traction surfaces and Phospholutions is a Penn State-based company that I feel has a rural solution to help rejuvenate the greenery in the local area safely,” he said. “This gives them all a different opportunity whether they were awarded or not,” Higbee said.

Swisher, who walked away with a $25,000 check as the contest’s winner, was honored with the big win. “This feels great,” Swisher said. “I’m ecstatic to go home with $25,000. I’m pretty sure that this is actually going to help us not have to raise any more capital, so that is a big thing for us now that we can keep our company as ours and not have to bring in a big (venture capital) fund because of this $25,000 prize ” Swisher said. Swisher, of State College, helped develop a product that soaks up fertilizer and releases it slowly over time. He said this prevents up to 98 percent of the fertilizer from washing away.

“It saves people money and saves the environment,” he said.

The product was developed by a Penn State University professor over the last 15 years, and Swisher found a key step in its development that made it cheaper. It has been available for sale nationwide since June. “We were just absolutely excited,” Swisher said of hearing his team won. “It’s something we really needed. This $25,000 will allow us to not have to raise any more capital. That’s huge for us.”

Ben Franklin Venture Investment Forum Executive Director Jill Edwards said she was happy with all of the contestants who entered. “I don’t care what the statistics say about Pennsylvania,” she said. “This is a cause for hope.”

Entrpreneurism is indeed alive here in the Alleghenies.