Jack Wadsworth, a Williams alum and owner of Porches, speaks about how 'lonely' he and his wife felt when they first began investing in North Adams. They don't feel that way anymore.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — From musical education to tiny houses, Thursday's Lever Demo Day was a celebration of the region's entrepreneurial spirit.
The daylong event held at Greylock Works was an opportunity for local startups to display their visions and progress — and for the finale of the North Adams Arts Enterprise Challenge that saw the prize go to Eric Schimelpfenig of Fabber.
Launched back in April, the challenge offered $25,000 in startup funds plus three months of consulting and working space at entrepreneurial incubator Lever.
"We launched this challenge early this year really to shine a spotlight on North Adams really as a city in a position to support really foster enterprises within the arts community," said Brent Filson, Lever's director of programs and operations. "Our requirements were that each company had to have potential for rapid growth, had to leverage an asset in North Adams and also could apply as a resource within the arts community."
The challenge received 18 applications that were winnowed down to four competitors who received help in developing their final pitches given in front of three judges and the more than 100 gathered for Demo Day at Greylock Works.
The presentations differed greatly although all had the arts or creativity at their core. Each had 10 minutes followed by five minutes of sharp questioning by the judges: angel investor Jessica McLear; Milltown managing partner Timothy Burke; and "serial entrepreneur" Michael Cohen.
Schimelpfenig's proposal won the day although it was less about art and more about making creativity faster and easier. Fabber is a software program that significantly cuts down on the design process for 3D and CNC [computer numerical control] manufacturing.
The price of CNC machines has dropped dramatically in the last 20 years — from $200,000 to $12,000; at the same time, the number of people attending so-called "maker fairs" showing what they've created is topping a million a year, Schimelpfenig said.
It is now a $167 billion industry, one he sees as a perfect entry point for software like Fabber, which used on a subscription service, could generate more than $250 million a year.
It's already being tried out by local manufacturers like Neathawk Designs and B&B Micro Manufacturing, significantly cutting their times between design and product.
"I want to get this in the hands of more people," the kitchen and bath designer said.
Afterward, the entrepreneur joked he could finally take a nap after working on this "for about 700 years." He'd been working with Lever since last fall and so knew about the challenge when it opened in April. The funds will help get some engineers onboard to begin moving the business into a real revenue model, he said.
Lever had been great because he knew how to work through the technical issues but not the business side.
"Without them and this kind of help, I would have not been able to turn this into a business," he said.
Jeffrey Thomas, executive director of Lever, said the incubator was completely neutral in the competition but had watched Schimelpfenig "develop his idea from something he would really like to have into something we are really convinced there's a big market for."
Coming in as runner-up was Michelle Wiley — a music instructor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts whose background ranges from singing backup for Steely Dan to co-writing the title theme for the Oscar-winning "An Unmarried Woman."
She wants learning to read music to be easier.
Her solution is "Giggles," a series of modules that use songs, cartoon characters and games to explain how to read notes. She's found that the long-used FACE model makes no sense when the notes are mixed up — it would be like learning the alphabet while trying to also read. Instead, children would learn where Bee the B note "lives" on the scale. It targets ages 5 to 7 but she could see it scaling up for teens, adults and those with learning disabilities.
When Cohen asked if she was "ready to crawl through the desert of hell" to bring her product to market, she responded by flouncing her flowy skirt and proclaiming, "Don't let this pink fool you."
The other two presenters were Randy Flippinger or Risk Arts and Dominic Spillane of Theater Engine.
Flippinger, who has worked in arts management for many years, is promoting an investment vehicle to underwrite arts organizations that would allow a return on investment and also free organizations to try riskier programs and performances. Spillane is more interested in getting people to musical performances — and theater, circuses and other performing arts. His pitch is Theater Engine, a website that works somewhat like a rooms search, think TripAdvisor, that finds performing arts wherever you are and collects a fee on ticket sales.
Attendees also heard from more established businesses that have worked with Lever and are now about to launch new initiatives: B&B Micro Manufacturing was just approved as a modular manufacturer in Massachusetts and is busy cornering the market in vacation and event housing; Valt, an image-based password protector, is gearing up to launch a cryptocurrency wallet protector; Whole Life Pet foods is ready to invade the grocery market; and Sustaine, a co-generation operations system, is working to keep college campuses hot, cold and energy efficient.
Lever also announced it had received $450,000 in private and public funding, $150,000 of which will go to six startups that participate in the organization's challenge programs that foster regional entrepreneurship.
Speaking on the funds were Travis McCready, president & CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center and Pat Larkin, director of the innovation institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. Also attending was Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer, state Sen. Adam Hinds, and state Rep. John Barrett III and local business and community leaders.
The organization also recognized the Berkshire Business Interns — 32 who were selected from more than 400 applications to work with local business — and local partners who helped host the interns with Eric Kerns as emcee.
John "Jack" Wadsworth, an owner of Porches and civic philanthropist, said he and his wife, Suzy, had felt a little lonesome when they first started investing here.
"We don't feel lonesome anymore," the Williams College alumn said. "There's energy in the room. Lever has made a huge impact. There's investment coming into the community really there are vital ideas that have the possibility of matching great ideas with risk capital."
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