NMU hosts New Business Venture Competition

Finalists participate in Thursday’s New Business Venture Competition at Forest Roberts Theatre at Northern Michigan University. From left are Brendan Jacques, Nic Beaudreault, Keef Edwards, Hannah Pickens and Julie Wilhelmi. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — It’s one thing to nurture a business dream. It’s another thing to have to sell it to relative strangers.

That’s what five budding entrepreneurs had to do Thursday at Northern Michigan University’s Forest Roberts Theatre during “The Big Pitch” competition. The “Shark Tank”-style activity involved four teams pitching their business ideas to “celebrity” judges.

The New Business Venture Competition was open to NMU and high school students, with the chosen finalists also participating in a trade fair where they displayed informational materials and product prototypes.

Winning the entire competition, of which the Big Pitch was a part, was Brendan Jacques, an NMU entrepreneurship major, whose Portage Paddle Sports brings new and affordable recreational activities to the Copper Country.

The company, he said, seeks to a fill a recreational void in that community by attracting locals and visitors to explore the Portage Canal.

Although kayaking already is enjoyed by many people in the region, paddle-boarding, he noted, is becoming increasingly popular.

But there are challenges.

“For many, when paddling, the concern for safety, cost of equipment and access to a body of water are all deterrents,” Jacques said. “This is where Portage Paddle Sports comes in.”

Its solution, he said, is to provide certified and knowledgeable team members who help customers safely enjoy the Portage Canal in these types of recreational pursuits at a reasonable rate, with the launch located at Hancock Beach. Concessions, which include hand-scooped ice cream, also are offered.

The company is entering its second year.

“I believe that we are on the right track to becoming what I envision: a summer destination spot for Upper Peninsula that will be the top choice for locals and visitors when looking for a place to spend their summer days,” Jacques said.

As with the other finalists, Jacques showed a video about his company, with the judges then asking questions following their presentations.

The inquiries ranged from their marketing ideas to the possibility of future expansion to educating people on their products’ brands.

“It’s not easy to stand up here in front of bright lights and with a bunch of dim faces looking at you,” Dave Rayome, dean of the NMU College of Business, told the finalists. “Kind of makes you nervous, doesn’t it? But it’s a great experience.”

Jacques received a prize package valued at $7,750.

Portage Paddle Sports, he noted, was a family idea, which gave him outside views on how to proceed.

“We really kind of worked through it together, and I was really thankful for that,” Jacques said.

Second place and a $4,000 prize package went to Keef Edwards, an NMU accounting major and owner of the Keef Company as well as Modern Marketing. He sells products online and elsewhere with the Keef Company logo, with other groups using his products to display their logos.

Edwards recently launched the campaign for Modern Marketing, which so far has two clients, one of which is Velodrome Coffee Company in Marquette. For Velodrome, he makes hats and beanies out of its burlap coffee bags. Edwards also won $500 for winning the actual Big Pitch competition.

Third place and a $2,200 prize package went to Nic Beaudreault, a December NMU management graduate. He also won the Crowd Favorite part of the competition and was awarded $500.

Beaudreault’s idea was creating a Marq Etiquette Board Shop to sell gear for enthusiasts in the board sports: surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding and skiing.

He said the Marquette sports market has a major gap.

“There are a multitude of shops in town catering to bikers, hikers, kayakers, fishermen, you name it, but currently there is no shop that represents the boards’ sports community,” Beaudreault said. “As long as there is open water, you can’t go to Presque Isle without noticing a congregation of bobbing heads waiting for that perfect wave.”

Jacques and Beaudreault also won $250 each for finishing in a tie in the trade fair competition.

The other finalist was the team of Julie Wilhelmi and Hannah Pickens, entrepreneurship and outdoor recreational and leadership management majors, whose business idea, “Healed by Nature,” would educate customers about natural healing properties derived from outdoor activities.

“You’ll be taught how to respect and connect with nature,” Wilhelmi said.

Pickens also pointed out that many clients don’t have the knowledge, skills, equipment and transportation needed to participate in the activities they would offer.

Judges were: Richard Holmes, founder of Every Market Media; Amanda Kohl, chief operating officer, Every Market Media; Roxanne Daust, executive vice president of Range Bank; Alexander Kofsky, enterprise facilitator, Accelerate UP; Chad Lewis, owner of Superior Manufacturing Solutions, Lewis Boat Shop and Ensign Spars; and Dennis West, president of Northern Initiatives.

Rayome had words of encouragement for the finalists.

“I would encourage you to keep working on your business plans and your ideas, and move them forward,” Rayome said, “and you’re going to be amazed at what you’re going to achieve.”

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.