Beyond angel funds and venture capital, entrepreneurs behind startup companies today have an assortment of business plan and pitch competitions to test their ideas and win funding.
Take Katrina Samardzija, for example. A junior at Grand Valley State University, she has won several thousand dollars this year at competitions with her company, Locker Lifestyle LLC. That includes $6,000 from Accelerate Michigan and $11,000 at Dolphin Tank, which was organized by the Michigan Women’s Foundation, plus $5,000 in May at 5x5 Night.
Locker Lifestyle also won two awards — for $5,000 and $2,500 — at last spring’s MWest Challenge, a regional business plan competition in West Michigan for college students.
Samardzija is using the capital to secure patents, and arrange production and distribution for Locker Lifestyle, which makes “wearable lockers” for people with an active lifestyle to hold a phone, cash, keys, identification or other objects in a pouch worn around the wrist, ankle or head. Made from a high-performance fabric, the products are washable.
Samardzija, who started Locker Lifestyle in June 2016, now makes the wearable lockers on her own with friends and sells them online.
She credits pitch competitions with helping to hone her skills in pitching her idea. Perhaps more valuable than the money she’s won for Locker Lifestyle is the networking that goes on at the pitch competitions.
“The people you meet there and the connections are more important than anything,” she said. “It’s really cool to get a bunch of different perspectives out of it.”
A tennis player at GVSU who’s studying entrepreneurship and marketing after changing her major from nursing, Samardzija came up with the idea for the wearable locker based on her own active lifestyle. When she worked out, she didn’t want to take her wallet. The lockers at the gym didn’t lock, and the storage cubbies were open to anyone.
“I knew there had to be a better solution and I wanted to do something about it,” said Samardzija, who drew up a design and worked with a seamstress at her mother’s former bridal shop in the Chicago area to develop a prototype.
“If I had found something like that on the market, none of this would have happened,” she said.
Locker Lifestyle took the grand prize for students and was one of 10 winners overall at the 2017 Accelerate Michigan competition this month in Detroit, which awarded nearly $1 million in cash and in-kind services.
More than 60 companies from around the state competed in this year’s Accelerate Michigan. The top winner was Orbion Space Technology, a Houghton-based company that develops systems to propel small satellites into space. The company received $500,000.