SHERIDAN — Five Start-Up Challenge finalists are preparing their presentations for Pitch Night at the WYO Performing Arts and Education Center Oct. 29.
The pool of finalists shows the Challenge’s regional appeal, with finalists from Gillette, Story, Dayton and Sheridan, Wyoming Technology Business Center director Scot Rendall said.
“This was, without a doubt, the highest quality pool of applicants in the three-year history of our event,” Rendall said.
There has been a push for increased economic diversity in Wyoming; for businesses outside the energy sector, said Doug Cherry, director of business education at Sheridan College. The broad field of technology is especially popular on the new-business stage, Cherry said.
In general, Wyoming incubators are successful at offering one-time capital but struggle with longevity, he said. Wyoming’s fierce, independent cowboy spirit sometimes conflicts with achieving strong economic diversity in the state.
Multiple parties are often competing for the same resources with the same idea — Wyoming needs an economic orchestrator, he said.
With a state clientele of just more than half a million people, Wyoming businesses need to be web-based to reach a broader customer base capable of supporting a successful business, Cherry said.
The goal is to create thriving economies, with revenue from local business bringing money into the state rather than detracting revenue from other local businesses, he said.
Just three of the five finalists will be provided with start-up capital, incubator space and access to a $50,000 pot to advance their business venture.
Every finalist is prepared to keep pushing forward to make their start-up a success, regardless of the results Oct. 29.
Jared Koenig, recreational sandals
Jared Koenig is tapping into new 3D printing technology with his business plan, creating sandals suited for adventurous people. There weren’t any suitable, flexible materials available in 3D printing until very recently, Koenig said.
“The race has been on for a little while to create flexible materials for 3D printing,” Koenig said. “That’s why I wanted to get a jump on this.”
Koenig plans to develop several iterations of the shoe, but each will have some type of canvas strap to affix the foot to the sandal with a 3D-printed, flexible lattice structure on the bottom. The lattice structure allows water to drain out instantly, to avoid trapping sweat and water from recreational activities.
The goal is to create a sandal better suited for outdoor recreation, offering people an alternative to walking around in slippery, sweaty sandals, he said. Feet have the highest concentration of sweat glands, so dispelling sweat from the feet helps to regulate body heat.
Koenig said he wants to do what he can to support the local economy with his business, mainly by sourcing materials and production as close to Sheridan as possible.
“I want it to be a locally-driven business that supports people and I want to — eventually my end goal is to set it up as some sort of an employee-owned business,” Koenig said. “So that more people in the community benefit from it and it has a better chance of surviving in the community.”
As a generation of business owners older than 65 start retiring nationwide, Koenig hopes to keep some economic vitality pulsing through the region with his new business.
Dwight and Megan Stanislaw, WYO Candle Company
The Wyoming Candle Company opened in March 2019. The idea started with a fundraiser during which Megan Stanislaw poured candles to sell and support the couple’s adoption process.
Megan and Dwight Stanislaw then started developing the idea of contributing some profits from a business to support other family’s adoptions, as a way to give back for the support they received.
As the business has progressed from an idea to their garage to a storefront downtown, the Stanislaws are using candles to capture the spirit of Wyoming and share a mission that is close to their hearts.
Each year, the couple plans to donate a percentage of their sales to an organization or family to help older children find homes through adoption, Dwight Stanislaw said.
The WYO Candle Company has already grown more quickly than they expected. The Challenge is helping them catch their breath and prepare for the next phase of their business, Megan Stanislaw said. They are using the WTBC’s resources and expertise to focus their goals and creative ideas toward a successful business.
“[We are working on] reaching a wider audience around the country of people who not only enjoy candles, but those people that maybe grew up in Wyoming or have some sort of affinity for Wyoming and the West — and want to have a piece of that in their home whether they’re in New York or California,” Dwight Stanislaw said.
With each customized, hand-blended scent, the couple attempts to capture smells reminiscent of the Western, outdoor lifestyle — like grandpa’s cabin, a hiking trip or a family memory, Dwight Stanislaw said.
Alisha Bretzman, Piney Island Native Plants
Alisha Bretzman’s connection to plants is backed by years of research, expertise and dedication to learning. She is currently the expert in plant and tissue culture in the area.
Bretzman’s business venture is a native plant greenhouse and nursery, which will provide locally-sourced and adapted native plant material for wholesale and retail.
The native plant material can be used for restoration, reclamation and conservation-oriented projects, as well as for homeowners who want to cultivate an aesthetic or bring certain pollinators and birds to their backyard.
“The first time I ever experienced a greenhouse, I was 18,” Bretzman said. “When I walked through those doors, I just felt love. I loved the energy.”
Bretzman pursued her passion through higher education and started research into native plants when she returned to Sheridan. She was successful with projects like increasing germination percentage in native plant seeds.
“I realized…that I have the network, I have the skill, I have the passion, I didn’t need to pursue the master’s degree to start what my ultimate goal has been since age 18,” Bretzman said.
The benefit of restoring public lands with native plant material goes beyond supporting plant life, Bretzman said. Biological diversity of plant life spreads and improves the diversity of insects, wildlife and recreation opportunities.
Bretzman’s business will benefit people who enjoy activities like botany, foraging, painting, hunting and fishing; increasing the quality of life for the greater community, she said.
Local organizations sourcing plant material out of state are excited to have access to locally-sourced plant material, Bretzman said. She also plans to provide education and workshop opportunities for students and others.
Marta Ostler, Purpose Physical Therapy
Ostler has been working in wound care and physical therapy for almost 27 years, meeting patients with a variety of chronic conditions. She was also influential in developing the wound clinic at Sheridan Memorial Hospital, she said.
Throughout her career, Ostler has seen a need for patients to receive care at home, as getting to a brick-and-mortar building can be challenging for some people, she said.
Ostler’s goal with Purpose Physical Therapy is to offer a mobile, on-site, physical and skin rehabilitation clinic that can reach Sheridan’s rural community.
Ostler worked with a network of health care professionals to develop data showing how beneficial her business model can be in the U.S., she said. Her business is particularly applicable to rural populations who may struggle with isolation and limited public transportation, she said.
“I can’t say to my surprise, but I was happy that the more that I looked, the more than I realized this is a need,” Ostler said. “This is a national need and I believe very much — and I just know this very deeply — that this is something that will be happening in the United States.”
The government doesn’t want to keep paying for people consistently going into a hospital, she said. Ostler seeks to provide treatment and preventative services that keep people healthy.
Ostler said she enjoys helping people with health problems improve their quality of life, combining her knowledge of wound care and physical therapy in practice. She also enjoys educating people about accountability for their own health and empowering them with the tools to improve their lives.
Ostler said she hopes to grow her business in the county and the state, while compiling more data to show national stakeholders the need for and benefit of her business model.
Lisa Durgin and Sharon Jones, MuscleShok Sport Therapy
Sisters Lisa Durgin and Sharon Jones seek to soothe sore muscles and support Wyoming businesses with MuscleShok sport therapy.
Wagner Solutions LLC, better known by the brand name MuscleShok, began as a collaboration between Durgin and Jones in 2017. Both have professional backgrounds in STEM fields. MuscleShok sells bath salts and sports gels to help muscle fatigue and soreness.
Durgin said she is “the geek of the group,” and enjoys researching natural methods to keep her family active and healthy.
“We’re new at this and there’s a lot we don’t know,” Durgin said. “It’s really great that more experienced people want to offer some expertise and assistance to people still navigating those waters.”
Durgin and Jones chose to work with a bath salt supplier in Evanston rather than a company out of state. It allowed them to tour the site and discuss manufacturing practices with the supplier, as well as support another Wyoming business, Jones said.
“There’s a character trust which I think is inherent with people in the West — and then there’s a capability trust,” Jones said.
Jones and Durgin started MuscleShok with the intention of developing a nationally-recognized brand. Their go-big-or-go-home mentality has influenced their business decisions, Durgin said.
MuscleShok’s newest product came out in August. The Challenge offered a way for the team to start thinking ahead about their business’ potential, Jones said.
“We also were impressed with the breadth of types of businesses that were emerging,” Jones said. “You know how you’re in your own microcosm and you think you’re the only one undergoing the pain and the agony and the fun of starting up a new business…to hear about all the different types of businesses that are starting, I thought it was really encouraging for the state.”
Watch these finalists pitch their business ideas at the WYO Performing Arts and Education Center Oct. 29 starting at 5:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.