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Northland business pitch contest awards $10,000 to area entrepreneurs

Doggy Bunk Bed creator Patti Stoddard, of Tower, received the highest award for the most polished pitch, earning $5,000 in cash and an opportunity to make her pitch at the MN Cup.

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The five contestants who presented at the RINK Pitch Competition at Clyde Iron Works in Duluth on Dec. 14, 2021: Patti Stoddard, from left, Jeff Love, Becky Dean, Josh Oswald and Victoria Ranau. Contributed / Itasca Economic Development Corp.
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Innovate 218 held its first-ever RINK Pitch Competition on Dec. 14 at Clyde Iron Works in Duluth, where five entrepreneurs from around the Northland shared their business ideas to a panel of judges in hopes of winning cash prizes.

Tower resident Patti Stoddard, creator of the Doggy Bunk Bed, won the "Hat Trick" award, which was given for the most polished pitch. She received $5,000 and an opportunity to present her pitch at the 2021 MN Cup, a community-led, public-private partnership hosted by the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

Stoddard has been developing the Doggy Bunk Bed for about two years. The bed, which sits atop an aluminum and steel frame that hovers just above the foot of the bed, allows for dogs to sleep near their owners without taking up their whole bed.

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Two basset hounds from East Duluth are recent customers of the Doggy Bunk Bed, created by RINK Pitch Competition winner Patti Stoddard, of Tower. Contributed / Patti Stoddard

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The RINK Pitch Competition was created with funds from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development's Launch Minnesota grants. Innovate 218 Program Manager Amanda Lamppa said she hopes they will be able to secure future funding to host the competition annually, if not more frequently.

Eighteen applicants submit their startup ideas; the list was then narrowed to five who presented at Clyde Iron Works.

“They weren’t just like, ‘Hey, I have an idea,’ but they’d done the groundwork,” Lamppa said. “These were folks that were at that ground level, but had done that research and really thought about it."

The RINK competition gave a nod to the northern Minnesota favorite pastime of hockey, awarding the top three prizes for "Hat Trick," "Tossed Salad" (best idea) and "Goon" (crowd pleaser). Moderator Brian Hanson, president and chief executive officer of the Area Partnership for Economic Expansion, dressed as a referee for the event.

“It was very low-key," Lamppa said. "We didn’t want to scare the entrepreneurs because it can be very daunting and nerve-wracking to take part in something like this.”

Grand Rapids resident, inventor of the water filtration system Water Mender, received $3,000 for the "Tossed Salad" award. Victoria Ranua, of Soudan, won the $2,000 "Goon" award, voted by the audience, for her Natural Variation products to capture memories and experiences in nature. "Honorable Mention" was awarded to Josh Oswald for REEF Lab saltwater aquariums and Becky Dean for Ranger Adventure Vans luxury camper vans.

Ryan Weber, one of five judges at the RINK and managing partner of Great North Ventures, said pitching is important for entrepreneurs to gather critical feedback on their ideas and to network with other creators and investors.

“I think that this pitch competition can help raise awareness that this is a viable career path and this is a viable option for entrepreneurs,” Weber said, stating that he's observed a lack of both prospective startups and venture financing in Greater Minnesota compared to the Twin Cities. “It’s just great to see all the energy from the entrepreneurs and try to encourage them.”

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Other judges were Pascha Apter, founder and CEO of Giant Voices; Deb Otto, president of Bremer Bank's Duluth market; Tom Sega, president and CEO of Duluth Pack; and Chad Simons, partner of Northface Properties.

Love's Water Mender is a complement to other existing filters that pumps water from the source, through the filter and into the container with a battery, not requiring gravity filtration or hand-pumping. Weber said the judges found the technology to be innovative and well-engineered.

“I thought that all three of them were really deserving," Weber said of Stoddard, Love and Ranua. "It was hard to pick the winner because I thought that all three finalists were really strong for different reasons.”

Several participants at the RINK had also attended the ILT Academy virtual training for entrepreneurs to polish startup ideas and work out the processes of creating a business model. Lamppa said the program helps entrepreneurs know where to begin and see if their idea is viable. Weber said it's helping fulfill the need for business development training.

“There’s a lot of really smart people around here that just need a little extra boost,” Love said.

Stoddard said she plans to use her grand prize money to work on marketing the Doggy Bunk Bed to markets in large cities across the country, where people with small apartments could benefit from the space-saving bed. She said she's run into issues with high shipping costs and difficulties obtaining raw materials, but was able to launch her website and begin to sell her product in September.

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Patti Stoddard, inventor of the Doggy Bunk Bed, won the first place "Hat Trick" award at Innovate 218's RINK Pitch Competition on Dec. 14, 2021, at Clyde Iron Works in Duluth. Contributed / Itasca Economic Development Corp.

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“Whether you take home money or not, it doesn’t matter," Stoddard said. "It really is about learning and seeing all the different avenues that your business can take. It’s so awesome for the 218 area code because we’re often so isolated, but we’re full of ideas.”t

Regional Launch MN group Innovate 218 is comprised of numerous government, economic development, nonprofit and higher education organizations in the Northland.

Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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