Five teams of MSU students attended a statewide entrepreneurship and startup competition in Missoula on March 8. The 30th Annual John Ruffatto Startup Challenge was held at the University of Montana (UM) and was open to Montana public university students with creative plans for business startup ventures. The event was sponsored by the UM School of Business Administration and 12 teams from MSU and UM in total competed.  

All five of the MSU teams earned awards and funding for their ventures. Four swept the top spots and won the majority of the $50,000 in prize money. “The top four is the big bracket; those are the business ventures that presented to the community audience,” said Ruffatto Startup Challenge attendee and The Ant Network director Miles Maxcer. “Coming off of MSU having no teams in the top four just a couple years ago, it’s pretty awesome for the program to see so much success.”

Competition day started for the participants at 7 a.m. and lasted until 9 p.m. Each team gave a 20-minute presentation in front of 12 judges in four main heats. Most of the judges were local business owners and investors. During the presentations, the teams gave background information on their company, shared their plan for a business venture and demonstrated how the company could be profitable. The teams received feedback and then incorporated it to improve their next presentation. “During the competition, we couldn’t really gauge how well we were doing,” Maxcer said. “We took the feedback and kept going, but we didn’t have a lot of indications from the judges on how the competition would end.”

The teams representing MSU consisted of first-place winner The Ant Network, second place May West Milkweed, third place Kubed, fourth place Sellout and fifth place CubiEZ. Many of the teams were at different stages of development in their ventures and ideas. The Ant Network, a science communication company that uses media, physical exhibits and educational resources to spread awareness about the biodiversity of the planet through ants, is directed by Maxcer as well as sophomore teammates Ben Schwartz and Thomas Stanton.

May West Milkweed manufactures sustainable and innovative winter jackets made from the milkweed plant, and is led by MSU graduate student Alayna Rasile. Kubed uses kale, chia seeds and coconut milk to produce frozen smoothie cubes that can be added to any blender to enhance the nutritional value of a smoothie, and is co-run by seniors Serena Gossack and Sophia Koopmeiners.

Sellout uses an online platform to provide users with a smarter and simpler ticket purchasing experience. The team consists of freshman Sam Heutmaker and senior Mike Pollard. CubiEZ, led by Cade Ellis, designs a compact and convenient way for consumers to store the many charging devices used daily.

MSU teams were assisted by the Blackstone LaunchPad (BLP), a non-profit campus resource for business and entrepreneurial support aimed at business students. BLP connects students with goals of entrepreneurship to local businesses in order to garner funding for their ideas. The competition proved to be very successful for all MSU teams in attendance. Not only are the monetary prizes useful in the takeoff of a startup, the competition brought statewide recognition to new entrepreneurial ventures.