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MSU third annual $50K Competition accelerates ventures

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Meet the winners who took home $18,000 of prize money

By Tucker Harris EBS STAFF

BOZEMAN – Two young entrepreneurial pairs left Montana State University’s third annual $50K Venture Competition on April 27 with $18,000 apiece to advance their innovative business ideas. First, second, third and fourth place winners also walked away with a split of the remaining cash prize.

Two pitches for mobile apps, one designed for restaurants and the other a social support networking platform for university students, stood out to an esteemed panel of judges at the pitch competition, which is hosted by MSU’s Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship and its Blackstone LaunchPad. The competition consisted of 10 finalist ventures entered by MSU students, faculty, staff and alumni. Ventures fell either into the traditional for-profit category or a social venture category.

Held for the first time in-person, the event started out with an announcement that the original $50,000 in funding available for the winners had increased by $25,000. In addition to prize money, winners gain access to experienced entrepreneurs, mentors and many business network resources.

This year’s judges included Eric Ladd, founder and chairman of Outlaw Partners (which publishes EBS), Boundary Expeditions, L&K Real Estate and Outlaw Real Estate Partners; April LaMon, CEO and co-founder of Alosant; Garrett Leach, MSU alumnus and analyst for Next Frontier Capital; and Scott Peterson, MSU alumnus and vice president of development for United Properties.

“It was just a really impressive—the amount of great thinking that’s going on in the state of Montana around these ventures,” LaMon told EBS.

Two recent MSU computer science graduates, Bruce Clark, 23, and Marcus Twichel, 24, took home the first-place prize of $18,000 in the for-profit category for their mobile app-building platform, Morel Technology.

The idea all started when Twichel was working as a barista at a chain coffee shop, City Brew, in 2015. City Brew tasked Twichel in 2020 with finding a platform it could use to build an app for its customers, but Twichel couldn’t find one that fit the business’ needs. Twichel eventually came back to City Brew with the idea to build his own app that met all of the coffee shop’s requirements.

Twichell and Clark began working on their own platform, Morel Technology, to build apps for restaurants in the fall of 2021 with the goal of equalizing the technology gap between large, corporate restaurants and smaller, local ones.

“Our platform gives local restaurants a fighting chance against big chains,” Clark said.

With eliminating cost and time and increasing accessibility in mind, the duo has successfully launched their platform.

The platform is free for restaurants to use, and the pair profits from 3 percent of the sales restaurants make through the application.

Twichel and Clark said they felt very prepared for the competition. They had made their venture pitch more than 300 times before the competition.

“It’s kind of a combination of better quality and less expensive, which is kind of the disruptive part that we’re most proud of, to be honest,” Twichel said.

With their prize money in hand, Clark and Twichel’s will focus on branding and marketing.

“We really want to tackle that head on and create a brand that is playful and inviting to restaurants because that’s who we are,” Clark said. “Creating branded applications really creates a sense of belonging.”

Judge LaMon agreed.

“Being able to provide that in-app experience, in a scalable way that allows those very small business owners to cast a longer shadow to look like a bigger company and feel like a bigger company, I think is a really powerful idea,” she said of the venture.

Taking home first place in the social venture category and another $18,000, undergrad business marketing managers, Jasmine Schroder and Nathan Saier, impressed judges with their peer-based support app, PLUS.

Schroder came up with the idea for PLUS after one of her friends passed away from suicide at MSU this past year, she said.

“I want to make the most change in the world, I want to help people.” Schroder said. “There’s this… whole market of people that are just not being catered towards people wanting to connect.”

Schroder paired up with Saier to propel the idea into creation: a safe, free app for college students to easily meet each other and minimize the social barriers that may prevent initial connection.

PLUS will be set up like a dating app, Schroder said. It provides the user with profiles of students who have similar interests, majors or courses.

Though they were successful, the competition came with its own challenges.

“It was one of the most nerve racking experiences ever,” Saier said. “The stakes of [the event], the ability to increase that timeline, bring on the development team and make this a reality within a year … That was just like ever present in our heads.”

The prize money will allow PLUS to move into the development stage and significantly cut down the original release timeline from two years to goals of having PLUS go live on MSU’s campus next fall.

“I think that it’s a real problem that’s affecting this country in this state,” LaMon said of the mental health crisis. “I thought they came up with a really interesting way to use technology and more peer-based, or close to peer-based, interaction that help people who are struggling.”

Overall, the PLUS team is grateful for the opportunity.

“This is a result of just utilizing those resources that are already out there,” Schroder said. “Realistically, anybody who has a good idea, anybody who sees an issue in their community, has an ability to affect change, and has the resources on a college campus to do so.”

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