Business pitches compete for part of $50,000


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Salsa sellers, collection agents, and "green" lawn-care providers have one thing in common: They all need money.

Thirty-six entrants pitched their business ideas to a panel of judges during the second Iowa Center for Enterprise Elevator Pitch Competition — with $50,000 on the line.

"I know we look the part, but we are not opening a dance studio for authentic dance lessons," joked Aaron Castle, a first-year M.B.A. student, while pitching his business Mami's Authentic Salsa, which would sell partner Jerry Vasquez's family-recipe salsa in grocery stores.

Castle had just two minutes to pitch, followed by eight minutes of questions by the panel. This short amount of time forced participants to be concise, but judges said engaging potential investors in the first few minutes is paramount for success.

These opportunities might happen within the course of a brief elevator ride, hence the competition's name.

"I would say in any job environment, if you do well with the first two minutes, then you get the first 15," said Robert Penington, a panelist and the manager of technology commercialization for the UI Research Foundation. "If you lose them in the first five minutes, then you lose them."

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The competition was open to UI faculty, staff, graduate students, or start-up companies with an address in the UI Research Park. The $50,000 in prize money — which can be split among numerous entrants — will be awarded on Thursday. The money comes from the state's Grow Iowa Values Fund, which focuses on promoting local economic growth.

"Since the economy is rough, this is part of Iowa's stimulus spending," said Lee Groeschl, a contest judge and the associate director of business services for the Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center.

"This is almost an incentive for people thinking about starting a company to actually take the first steps and spend the money."

While many participants were just looking for a bit of capital to launch their plans, others had specific goals.

Cody Kiroff stood before the panel in a light-gray suit and a blue tie, his hands clasped in front of his waist, as he sold his collection-agency idea.

"It is a lot like the garbage industry," he said. "Those who are interested, they roll up their sleeves and get involved."

And for Kiroff — who has already started his business endeavor — he went before the judges to specifically request funding to rent office space.

The ideas presented to the panel varied both in design and progress, and the judges said the diversity made it exciting.

"It is nice to see that there is a variety of types of business," said Zev Sunleaf, the associate director of the UI Research Foundation. "That makes it more difficult to pick something because you are mixing apples and oranges."

Even though any amount of money the winners receive will not be all the capital they will need to succeed, judges said the competition will be beneficial to all participants.

"Their willingness to put themselves on the spot, it is never easy to do," Penington said. "Sometimes you can feel their nerves or their pride … but I admire the effort they put into it."

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