WILMINGTON – Techstars, a global organization dedicated to helping grow the entrepreneurial community, came to Wilmington’s UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) for one of its signature Startup Weekends March 29-31.

During the 54-hour program, more than 30 aspiring entrepreneurs pitched their best ideas and worked in teams to develop business plans for prizes that could set them on the path to success.

The group that assembled Friday evening was made up of about equal numbers of college students from UNCW and other local colleges and would-be entrepreneurs from Wilmington, Myrtle Beach, Raleigh/Durham and Charlotte, according to Laura Brogdon-Primavera, manager of programs and operations at CIE and principal organizer of the event. The fee for the weekend was under $70 for all three days of mentoring and seven meals.

George Taylor

George Taylor of Untappd delivered the keynote speech.

After an opening dinner of tacos and cookies, serial entrepreneur George Taylor, founder of Untappd, the largest beer app in the world, delivered opening remarks on the camaraderie, risk and excitement that comes with a startup. Taylor is the veteran of 11 startups, with three currently in the works, including a national effort, TRU Colors Brewing, aimed at simultaneously selling beer and stopping gang violence.

“It just shows that my wife is right,” he said. “I have a serious startup addiction. But if you launch a startup, you’ll have the time of your life.”

Photo shoot: Startup stars turn out for weekend in Wilmington

The warmup exercise that followed – generating a logo, tag line and elevator pitch from a random selection of words in 10 minutes – got the creative juices flowing, according to Aiko Cheslin, Techstar facilitator for the weekend. The groups came up with ideas ranging from pirate massage and rental koalas to solar powered drones and an alligator-petting bar.

Cheslin, CEO at MentorMatter, a Denver-based startup, volunteers with Techstars to lead Startup Weekends around the country. “I’ve attended 15, organized five, won seven and facilitated four, so far,” he says. “It’s great being part of a global community.”

Aiko Cheslin, facilitator for the Startup Weekend.

The Techstars Network includes more than 12,000 organizers who have run more than 4,000 events in more than 150 countries. Over 350,000 potential entrepreneurs have taken part in Techstars programs. “And the number is always growing,” Cheslin says. “I can’t update my slides fast enough.”

The Startup Weekend, the first held in Wilmington, got serious as participants came up to give a 30 second pitch for their entrepreneurial business, each with a projected name, concept and help needed. Pitching at Techstars is optional. “You don’t have to have an idea to participate in a startup weekend,” Cheslin said. “But why waste the opportunity?”

Voting followed, with participants choosing their favorite pitches. Seven of the 20 plus business ideas came out on top, and teams formed around them. They would work through the day on Saturday producing a viable 5-minute pitch, one that included customer base research, a marketing plan and a path to revenue. On Sunday afternoon, leaders of the local entrepreneurial community would judge them and announce winners.

“They’re going to work hard,” Heather McWhorter, regional director of the Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC), predicted. “There will be tears by tomorrow.” The UNCW SBTDC co-sponsored the event.

Saturday at a Techstars Startup Weekend is devoted to serious work on presentations, with local mentors knowledgeable in a variety of skill sets available to help work through problems. Teams received a brief presentation on setting up a business model canvas and a quick intro on how to pitch.

Team members also had to leave the building on Saturday to do on-the-ground market research to validate their ideas. “That’s a key component,” Cheslin said. “Too many startups never talk to potential clients to find out if there’s a need for their service.”

Startup Weekend judges (l. to r.) Tobin Geatz, Virginia Sourlis, Gene Kemp, William Mansfield, John Panaccione

By Sunday afternoon, a couple of teams found their ideas to be unworkable and had dropped out, with members redistributed to other teams. Five judges arrived in the late afternoon to hear the final pitches. Previously announced judges Gene Kemp, managing director at Wilmington-based Peregrine ConsultingVirginia Sourlis, retired corporate attorney, currently a broker/realtor at Intracoastal Realty, and William Mansfield, founder of Wilmington startup Social Haven, were joined by John Panaccione, CEO of channel growth specialists LogicBay, and J. Tobin Geatz, of Seahawk Innovation, a consulting service for entrepreneurs, both based in Wilmington.

Prizes, contributed by Startup Weekend sponsors, included:

  • CIE Media Team services
  • Advising sessions with Adam Shay, CPA
  • CIE memberships
  • An opportunity to pitch to the CIE Mentor Group
  • SBTDC consulting with its Business Launch Specialist

First place winners also received legal advice from Tracie Brisson, PA, and the use of conference space at tekMountain.

Each team developed an impressive slide presentation explaining their business plan, with one member giving a 5-minute pitch, followed by a 3-minute Q&A from the judges. The pitches included:

  • Shred & Tread, presented by 17 year-old Nicole Castoro, a concept that would sell sneakers made of sustainable and recycled materials decorated with custom artwork.
  • FHOME, presented by Trinity Baldwin, a non-profit concept that would use recycled styrofoam to create temporary shelters for use after natural disasters.
  • TriMedia, presented by Ted McIntire, a company that would provide comprehensive multi-media packages to marketing firms and small businesses.
  • MELLOWHEELS, presented by Israel Luquin, a service that would deliver beer, wine and tobacco directly to people’s homes.
  • Bee Safe, presented by Alana Ashurst, an app that would check the criminal background of potential matches on dating sites.

Shred & Tread, the winning team, (l. to r.) Toni Castoro, Nicole Castoro, Daniel Maldonado. “I didn’t even come to pitch,” Nicole said. “I was here to learn the process.”

Teams were judged on three criteria: validation, business model, and presentation and delivery. After deliberation, the judges provided feedback to each of the teams, then announced the winners. Nicole Castoro’s Shred & Tread proved the favorite, winning first place from the judges as well as the popular vote among the presenters. Second place went to Bee Safe, with MELLOWHEELS taking third.

A Happy Hour followed, fueled by brews from sponsor Wrightsville Beach Brewery. Participants had a chance to network with the judges and each other, making plans to continue developing their startups.

About 12 percent of the teams will likely go on to develop into startups, according to Cheslin. “I always say that it’s okay if you fail, it’s starting that is the important part,” he said. “Most people need to attend a couple of these startup weekends to really see how the process works.”

Cheslin praised the all-volunteer team that put Wilmington’s inaugural weekend together. “There’s really not a lot of cost involved, just my airfare and hotel,” he said. “But it’s amazing how much time it takes to organize one of these things, finding the sponsors, the judges, the mentors. Laura and her team have put on a killer event. It was really fun.”

Heather McWhorter, head of sponsor SBTDC and a member of the organizing team, said she was pleased by how the weekend went, and hopes to organize more. “This is a great way to build a community of entrepreneurs,” she said. “The transition from employee to entrepreneur is difficult. Events like this help people make the transition.”

Future Techstars Startup Weekends are scheduled for Greensboro April 12-14, 2019 and Rock Hill, SC, Aug. 9-11, 2019.

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