Five big ideas compete to earn funding

By Sarah Binder

CORRIDOR–After 10,550 votes were cast, five ideas were selected to pitch. The region’s first Dream Big Grow Here contest includes everyone from a 17-year old skateboard aficionado to a veteran photographer rediscovering his art.

Thirty-three entrepreneurs from across the Corridor submitted their ideas. Amanda Styron, founding partner at Seed Here, said she was impressed with both the range of companies participating, from early stage to mature, and the variety of cities across the Corridor that fielded entries.

“Those two things say to me, entrepreneurship comes from everywhere,” she said.

Dream Big Grow Here is a program of, University of Northern Iowa’s business development center in Cedar Falls. The idea that wins $5,000 at the regional level will advance to the statewide competition, which will be hosted in Cedar Rapids at the Hotel at Kirkwood in March.

Following are descriptions of the five companies selected as finalists for the pitch-off last week. Scroll to the end to see who won.

ClusterFlunk, Iowa City

ClusterFlunk hopes to differentiate itself from other educational platforms in one simple way: no teachers allowed.

“All of our market research shows that students don’t like to collaborate when the teacher is watching,” said Adam Nelson, co-founder of ClusterFlunk.

The company’s online platform includes discussion boards for each class, where students can ask questions and up- or down-vote answers, which are then archived to form a searchable database of course materials.

Mr. Nelson and his co-founder, Joe Dellago, are juniors at the University of Iowa, growing their company in the Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory on the UI campus. They started about one year ago, and are planning to open up their system for testing in three classes by final exam time. If they win the $5,000, they hope to have a beta test running by the start of next semester.

They are working with other UI students, designers and developers from across the country. Mr. Nelson said they would use the Dream Big money to pay developers to get the site running during winter break.

ClusterFlunk led the Dream Big competition for nearly the entire voting period and ended up in first place with 1,847 votes. Mr. Nelson said even if they don’t win, they are excited about the publicity.

They hope to serve as role models for other students who might consider starting a business, he said.

Ready to Go in America, Iowa City

Mekinda Mekinda, founder of Ready to Go in America, knows the need for his product first-hand.

“I face the problem of culture shock every day,” said the Muscatine Community College student from Cameroon.

Ready to Go would be a guide to life in America, covering universal topics such as transportation, dining and banking, as well as a state-by-state guide.

Mr. Mekinda first found traction for his idea at Startup Weekend Iowa City in September, and is working with two other Startup Weekend participants to move it forward. They hope their product will eventually be available on three platforms; a website, printed booklet and universal app.

International students in Iowa are the company’s initial target market and the entrepreneurs hope to take the idea nationwide.

Mr. Mekinda said they have been communicating with publishers to create the guide, as well as embassies and potential marketing partners to gauge interest and help market it.

Mr. Mekinda said it was difficult for friends and colleagues abroad to vote in the contest, but perseverance and personality helped them advance to the top five.

Portrait Community, Cedar Rapids

It’s part art, part documentary and part marketing.

William Nichols worked as a commercial photographer in the advertising industry before starting Concept Studios LLC, which, for now, is the presenter of Portrait Community.

“I got to the point where I was doing work for everyone else,” he said. “I needed to step back from that and think about what photography and art meant to me.”

Small business owners, musicians, politicians and volunteers are his inspiration, he said. He starts each portrait project with an interview to get to know the subject’s stories. His completed art pieces will be a combination of portraits and the subjects’ stories.

Mr. Nichols plans to monetize the business by selling the photos in formats ranging from art-quality prints to coffee mugs, and by having the subjects buy in. The subjects of the photos would get a commission of each sale but if they choose to become a member and invest up front they can get a higher rate.

“Relationship building, community building and art are the main motivations of this project,” he said.

Iron Leaf Press, Mount Vernon

Danielle Ameling works with high-tech design programs by day and centuries-old technology by night. The graphic designer is hoping to expand her side business, a letterpress studio run out of her apartment.

“I feel letterpress allows me to step back and really think about what I’m doing,” she said. “A lot of it takes more setup and planning.”

Ms. Ameling designs each print herself, sets the type or creates the plate, mixes the colors by hand and individually presses each piece of paper. She also offers graphic design and branding services to small businesses.

Many printers who made a career of letterpress are growing older, and she hopes to help keep the art form alive. Even the presses themselves each have a unique history, she said.
“Web communication is so fleeting, we don’t have as much ephemera as we used to,” she said.

Her ultimate goal is to open her own storefront and maybe offer classes to teach others about the art of letterpress.

Foliage Skateboards, Iowa City

Eli Shepherd has had an idea for a business since he started skateboarding in elementary school. Now, the 17-year-old junior at City High is hoping to take his dream of sustainable skateboards to reality.

“Skateboarding and the environment are two of my biggest passions,” he said.

He hopes the Dream Big money could help him with the startup costs of the business, including a press to make skateboards by hand and sustainably-forested maple, as well as other costs such as copyright and branding for Foliage.

He has already created some apparel with the Foliage brand and skateboarding videos. He said if he were able to hire employees, he would reach out to Zach Gruenhagen, a friend and UI student who has helped with the business proposal and potentially a videographer.

Mr. Shepherd said it can be difficult to balance starting a business while finishing high school and preparing for the future but his teachers have been encouraging. He said some even helped to get out the vote.

UPDATE–Ready to Go in America! takes top prize

A company idea that began in October received funding for $5,000 last night at the Dream Big Grow Here pitch-off contest.

Ready to Go in America! is an idea for a booklet, website and mobile app designed to help international students and other recent immigrants overcome culture shock. The three members who pitched the idea first met and started work on the concept at Startup Weekend Iowa City in October.

“Although it is just an idea, they put the things in place that can help them succeed,” said Josh Bass, founder of Iowa City’s Moped U and one of the judges.

Mekinda Mekinda, a Muscatine Community College student from Cameroon, Africa and founder of Ready to Go in America, said they have been communicating with publishers to create the guide and foreign embassies and potential marketing partners to gauge interest.

The Dream Big Grow Here competition began in October with 33 companies from across the Corridor, which were narrowed to five by an online vote. Those five presented their ideas to a panel of judges who decided the regional winner.

The competition is a program of, out of the University of Northern Iowa. After winning the regional level, Ready to Go in America will compete for $10,000 at the statewide competition, which will be hosted in Cedar Rapids at the Hotel at Kirkwood in March 2013.

Thursday night also included Cedar Rapids’ TechBrew, a monthly networking event hosted by the Technology Association of Iowa, and the launch of Tutor Universe, an education startup built out of the Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory. The evening also featured speakers with encouraging words for would-be entrepreneurs.