Three years ago, founder and CEO of American Furniture Warehouse Jake Jabs pledged $10 million to the University of Colorado Denver’s business school to enhance the center for entrepreneurship. The freshly renamed Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship used that money to gradually expand its annual business plan competition, culminating this year with new branding and a broader scope.
The Climb, as the competition is now known, represents an extension of CU Denver’s focus on experience, as well as the school’s biggest play to date at becoming a foundational institution for the burgeoning local startup community. “Denver and Boulder are just packed full of growing and expanding startups,” said Sarah Engel, assistant director at the Jake Jabs Center. “We work with them a lot and we want to contribute to this community.”
Even before Jabs’ gift, CU Denver administrators had been slowly expanding the competition. It was initially only open to grad students at CU Denver. Now, submissions are welcome from teams that have at least one member who is a graduate student at any university in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana or Wyoming, as well as teams with at least one undergraduate or alumnus of CU Denver.
Apart from the new name, the biggest change this year was opening up the competition to the general public. For the first time, noncollegiate teams were eligible to apply, so long as their companies were younger than two years and had not received any seed, angel or venture capital investment. "Opening up the competition is another way to connect and expand in this community," added Engel.
The expansion did not have a significant effect on the overall amount of applications received. Engel said they got 48 this year, similar to the 40-50 they received in previous years. But, 17 of those applications came from noncollegiate teams in the Denver and Boulder areas.
Based on the quality of short video pitches, four of those 17 teams were selected to compete at Pitch Night, the first public stage of The Climb, on Oct. 13. They offered up a diverse range of business concepts at the “Shark Tank”-style event, from modular ski bindings to valet storage, exemplifying the entrepreneurial spirit in the Front Range. And they took on a three-minute Q&A session from the panel of judges, which included Jabs, Matt Jonsen, an associate at Dorsey & Whitney LLP, and Rodman Schley, the host of PBS and Create TV’s Urban Conversion.
Lars Baugh, co-founder of a cricket-based food company called Lithic Nutrition, said that merely participating in the competition offered its own set of rewards. “It’s an opportunity to educate and convert environmentally conscientious people,” Baugh said. After winning $2,000 for placing first place in the noncollegiate track, Baugh gleefully passed out samples of Lithic’s protein bars to a hungry crowd and directed people to his crowdfunding campaign.
For the team behind BarMade, an automated cocktail-mixing device, The Climb presented a different kind of opportunity. “We want to make a good impression on Jake [Jabs],” said Sterling Engelhard, who manages user experience for the young company. Engelhard and his co-founders Liam Gallagher and Zach Zasada did more than that. They took home $1,000 for winning the most support from the live audience of any noncollegiate team.
By winning the cash prizes at Pitch Night, Barmade and Lithic Nutrition automatically qualified to compete in the semifinals on Nov. 11. Two other noncollegiate teams – the ski equipment company Crossover Technologies and the valet storage provider SquirrelBox – and six collegiate teams were selected to join them based on the executive summaries they submitted with their applications and their performance at Pitch Night.
They will compete for even bigger cash prizes and have more chances to make a good impression on Jabs and other local business leaders. Maybe more importantly, The Climb’s winners will earn access to the growing community of sponsors, former winners, and local businesses who offer inkind sponsorships.
Josh Pollack submitted his New York-style bagel plan to the competition in 2012 under the name Empire Bagels. After claiming second place, he received consultations and guidance that helped him open the concept as Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen in 2014. Pollack is now getting ready to open a second location at the Stanley Marketplace.
Rob Carpenter, CEO and founder of Appit Ventures, a bespoke mobile app development company, shared the first place prize that year. In addition to a $7,500 check and in-kind sponsorships from Dorsey & Whitney LLP and Canopy Advisory Group, Carpenter says the victory legitimized his company. “Any time you can put an award on your resume, it helps with discussion with potential customers and investors,” he said.
Since winning the competition, Carpenter has served as a judge himself and offered in-kind sponsorships to his successors. “I try to give back as much as possible,” he said. “It’s beneficial for everyone involved if the teams succeed.”
With each passing year, the network of companies like Appit and Rosenberg’s grows, building a sense of friendly competition while advancing CU Denver’s reputation. For this year’s hopefuls, that also means the stakes are higher than ever.
Only one question remains: Who will be the next Front Range success story?