Entrepreneurs Pitch for Funds in Annual Competition

May 31, 2023

Six teams from EWU’s E-Ship Center recently vied for $40,500 in funding to help them launch, or in some cases expand, fledgling companies during the final round of the Eagles Startup Challenge.

The event, held May 25 at the Spokane Public Library, was the final round of Eastern’s annual Shark Tank-style pitch competition, a multi-phased challenge in which 30 teams of student entrepreneurs competed in three rounds of competition, with the finalists appearing before a panel of business-savvy judges.

From customizable 3-D printable fingernails, to a portable generator that transforms plastic into electricity, the student-created pitches showcased ideas for creative services and products that solve problems, meet unfilled needs and expand options for consumers.

The six finalists, each of which met requirements that included creating a prototype, and obtaining a business license and a company bank account, received awards starting at $3,207.76.

Astria, an app-based company that will sell custom, 3-D printed cosmetic fingernails, took first place – winning $12,436.23. Astria is also eligible for the Catalyst Prize, which will confer an additional $10,000 in funding if its founders meet the requirement of hiring one person and launching sales within six months.

“Now I just feel like the possibilities are endless. I think the prospect of where we can go with it is what excites me the most,” says Astria co-founder Kolton Gifford, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering.

The Herbert B. Jones Foundation contributed $45,000 toward the Eagles Startup Challenge, and Ignite Northwest provided mentorship for the teams.

Philip Appel, director of E-Ship Center, said the competitions support job creators that, if they succeed, will likely employ 50 or fewer workers. Those small businesses are crucial to the U.S. economy, he says, because those businesses employ a majority of working Americans.

Appel says the Eagle Startup Challenge is unique because students don’t just submit plans, they meet requirements that ready them to launch businesses. Last year, all seven teams that made the finals were still operational in September. A full year later, five are still in business.

Anyone can be an entrepreneur if they are willing to take risks and develop the right skillset, says Appel, who has been involved in starting three companies, Isothermal Systems Research, Ag Energy Products, LLC, and Diverse Business Services, LLC.

“If you are passionate, if you believe in it and you say, “I can make this work’ – it’s going to work.”

Appel also manages the Avista Entrepreneur Competition, which is open to budding entrepreneurs from colleges and high schools from throughout the region. The competition, sponsored by Avista Utilities, will host its finals at 1 p.m. on Saturday, June 3 at the downtown library.

Several of the finalists from the Eagles Startup Challenge are also competing in the upcoming Avista competition, including Mohammed Mohammed, a 19-year-old junior from Spokane who is majoring in finance.

Mohammed’s Sweet Emporium, a company that connects candy lovers with hard-to-find and exotic international sweets, took fourth place, earning $4,474.41 in Eagles Startup Challenge funding.

Born in Sudan, Mohammed and his family were displaced by a civil war – and he spent more than half of his childhood years living in refugee camps.

As a high school student in the U.S., Mohammed honed his entrepreneurial skills by repairing smart phones and selling custom T-shirts. He recently earned a real estate license, which ties in with a larger business plan. Mohammed says he doesn’t plan to earn doctorate degrees, like his two older brothers, but instead will focus on a master’s degree in business administration, which better fits his sugary ambitions.

The candy company idea was hatched after he visited a sweets shop in Istanbul, Turkey. Now he can’t stop thinking about it.

“It’s always in the back of my mind,” Mohammed says. “I think ‘okay what’s next?’”

E-Ship Team Awards: 

First Place, $12,436.23: Astria – App-based company that sells custom, 3-D printed cosmetic fingernails (Kolton Gifford, Maliaika Nettey, Kathryn Butler)

Second Place, $9,063.97: Braxton Bonnets, fashionable bonnets and durags that are worn overnight while sleeping to protect the integrity of hair and hairstyles (Jael Wright)

Third Place, $8,109.87: Waste to Watts – portable home generators that transform plastic into electricity (Marianna Fischer, Brayden Taylor, Avary Zachary, Brandon Lewis)

Fourth Place, $4,474.41: Sweet Emporium – A platform to provide customers access to unique and exotic candies from throughout the world (Mohammed Mohammed)

Fifth Place Tie, $3,207.76: Civil Service – A nonprofit that collects donations to get projects done in communities (Isaac Atkins and Ian Wills)

Fifth Place Tie, $3,207.76: Expertezze – Small business networking platform with easy access, including business cards with scannable QR codes (Louis Di Mauro-Ayling)