Fort Lewis College concluded its Hawk Tank competition Saturday and it looks like a great success. Moreover, it exemplified and encouraged the kind of economic development that could best help this area.
It also highlighted the importance of Fort Lewis in the economy and culture of Southwest Colorado. That is hardly news, but the reminder is welcome.
Hawk Tank Business Plan Competition – the Fort’s answer to the television show “Shark Tank” – has entrepreneurs vying for prize money and bragging rights based on their plans for startup companies. This year’s competition is not the first, but it did mark the first time the college welcomed nonstudents on teams.
It was also the first time the competition was opened to all majors. That matters, because in the real world entrepreneurs come in all shapes. No one specialty or academic focus has a corner on innovation.
Forty-three teams entered the contest. Each had to be led by at least one current student or Fort Lewis alumni who graduated since spring of 2010. The teams can include as many as five members, although individual entries are also permitted.
Entrants were offered workshops throughout January, February and March. Teams also had the opportunity to pair with mentors from the Durango business community.
In January, Michael Valdez, a professor in the Fort’s School of Business Administration explained the thinking to potential participants. “We are going to give you the mechanisms to be successful,” he said. “Even if you don’t win, you’ve just taken your idea to the next level.”
The deadline to enter was Jan. 25, with business plans due by March 24. The entries were then judged by a panel of local experts and business leaders. Among them were Mark Katz and John Wolgamott, cofounders of Mercury Payment Systems, now Vantiv, and StoneAge Tools, respectively.
First place – and $5,000 – went to The Mate Exchange, founded by Fort Lewis alumnus Giancarlo Vigil. It sells yerba mate, South American loose leaf tea, and the traditional cups and metal straws used to drink it. (All the prize money was donated by the Fort Lewis College Foundation.)
Second place – $2,500 – was Fields to Plate, a small-scale farm started by Max Fields and James Plate. It raises produce for local businesses, schools and consumers.
Also finishing in the money – $1,000 – was third-place winner SLED Outdoors, which helps nonprofits and small businesses plan events. The Boulder-based company was launched by a Fort Lewis graduate.
But notable entries were not limited to the three prize winners. Also in the top five was a company that aims to use drones for monitoring pipelines and equipment in the gas and oil industry. Started by two FLC alumni, the company expects to save the industry time and money over other inspection methods.
The prizes have to be allocated somehow or it would not be a true competition. But it is hard to see how any of the participants could be seen as anything but winning. As Valdez said, all will be taking their ideas further as a result.
Beyond that, though, so will Fort Lewis. As Valdez told the Herald, one of the main ideas behind this program is to encourage new local business. The Hawk Tank seems a splendid way to do just that.