GVSU students Jordan Vanderham and Zoe Bruyn have been sweeping the business competition circuit as of late. Both took home top prizes on Nov. 3 at Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition, a statewide competition held at the Cobo Center in Detroit. One week later, Bruyn won a total of $11,000 at the Michigan Women’s Foundation Dolphin Tank Competition, while Vanderham took home $25,000 at Wake Forest University’s Retail and Health Innovation Competition. They have won a total of $84,000 between the two of them this year alone for their respective ventures. Neu checked in with the two seniors to talk about their experiences, and how they are applying their winnings.
“I am trying as hard as possible to get funds outside of the traditional norms, so competitions and Kickstarter are my two main avenues,” Bruyn said.
Bruyn is raising funds to invest in the growth of her business, a bakery called Stir it Up that employs individuals with special needs in order to improve their lives by providing them with valuable work experience. Bruyn currently has two employees with special needs that are paid minimum wage to bake a variety of goods and sell them with her at various events. To date, Stir it Up has sold over 5,000 cookies.
Bruyn hit the ground running when she pitched Stir It Up for the first time at 5×5 Night in July and won the monthly pitch competition’s $5,000 prize. Bruyn put the winnings towards employee training, and partnered with Trinity Community Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, which allowed her to utilize their commercial kitchen for production.
Bruyn intends to use the funds from Accelerate Michigan and Dolphin Tank to secure a brick and mortar space for her operation.
“It has to be close to public transportation for our employees, it has to be accessible,” Bruyn said. “I want people to be able to walk in and come hang out in our space. The next step is to do market research and figure out the location and demographics.”
Once Bruyn finds a space that fits all of her needs, she plans to launch a Kickstarter to fund supplies and hiring more staff.
Aside from capital, Bruyn has gained enormous community support from pitching, and received an abundance of positive feedback from audience members at Dolphin Tank.
“I just had a flow of people coming up and talking to me, saying ‘I like what you are doing, my brother has a disability,’ or ‘I work with this type of organization, can I connect with you?’” Bruyn said. “I probably walked away with 10 business cards.”
Vanderham is similarly trying to raise funds on the competition circuit for his venture to avoid the pitfalls of traditional bank financing. The senior engineering student started pitching Orindi, a cold weather assisted breathing mask that provides heat and fluid retention for the user, in October of 2015.
“There are so many resources for us to move forward,” Vanderham said. “It is so expensive to develop a product. I am working on pushing Orindi forward and being able to bankroll expenses debt free.”
Vanderham conceived the idea in 2014 at StartUp Weekend. He spent a year prototyping before he pitched– and won–at GVSU’s 2015 Idea Pitch Competition. He has since pitched the product at over half a dozen competitions and has garnered a substantial sum, all which has been allocated toward patent expenses, prototyping and professional development. He says he will probably pursue venture capital funding in the future when Orindi is ready to enter the manufacturing phase.
“If we bring them on board, you lose equity, but you also move forward when you possibly couldn’t,” Vanderham said.
Vanderham is a big believer in pitching.
“You get the validation that it is a good idea and it is worth your time,” Vanderham said. “Being able to communicate your value to someone else and have them believe in you is amazing.”
Both Bruyn and Vanderham venture’s are motivated by personal experience.
Bruyn has three family members with special needs and serves as a Young Life Capernaum leader. Stir It Up was inspired by her 5-year-old nephew Wyatt, who has down syndrome and loves to bake. As for Vanderham, he struggled with an asthmatic cough and his discomfort was always exacerbated by the cold.
Vanderham says it is that kind of passion that can really set a pitch a part.
“When the idea is good and the passion is right, you get a good balance,” Vanderham said.