Making the ‘Big Pitch’

NMU students compete in finals for business idea contest

These are the finalists in this year’s Big Pitch competition at Northern Michigan University. From left are Jim Callahan, Grace DeNoya, Donald McKaba and Patrick Gutierrez. (Journal photo by Christie Mastric)

MARQUETTE — It’s not too early for some Northern Michigan University students to think about sustainable containers, a gluten-free bakery, indoor golf and a boutique gym that features a cannabinoid supplement.

Four NMU students made the finals of Thursday night’s competition for NMU New Business Venture Competition’s “Big Pitch.” It was held at Forest Roberts Theatre on campus, where students presented their business ideas to a panel of judges for a chance to win thousands of dollars to get their enterprises going.

Winning the Big Pitch event and $1,500 was Donald McKaba with the Wasteless company. Grace DeNoya, whose enterprise was her You’d Never Know bakery, won $5,000 for Best Business Plan and $1,500 each for the Trade Fair and Crowd Favorite categories.

The other finalists were Jim Callahan, who proposed JC Indoor Golf, and Patrick Gutierrez, who proposed a boutique gym called Ixchel.

The event is designed to spur entrepreneurial activity among students by recognizing and rewarding students who present detailed plans on designing and creating new business enterprises.

The competition allowed the students to present their new ventures to investors, receive feedback, answer judges’ questions on the spot and apply classroom learning to real-world projects. The business plans had to show that the ventures will be financially profitable, be lawful and create new jobs.

McKaba said Wasteless is an “innovative shopping experience” that would reduce overall waste by eliminating some of what goes into landfills.

Wasteless, he said, involves the use of oak barrels and other types of reusable containers, which customers would rent through memberships. Customers can save money by buying products such as spices and salts in bulk at low costs and filling the reusable container with the bulk product. This allows opportunities for savings, because there wouldn’t be individual packaging costs.

“The average annual cost for an American at a grocery store is around $4,000,” said McKaba, who noted that with the climate change crisis, many consumers are willing to change their shopping habits.

He also has studied his potential customer base.

“I try to understand what my customers are going to look like and what their needs are,” McKaba said.

DeNoya talked about her 100% gluten-free bakery called You’d Never Know, which would begin in her home and then move to the Marquette Farmers Market followed by a brick-and-mortar location.

E-commerce, social media and word of mouth, she said, would be used to market her business.

DeNoya pointed out that many gluten-free products leave something to be desired.

“The stuff that’s out there isn’t very pretty,” DeNoya said.

With her bakery, her setup would ensure no cross contamination would affect her ingredients, DeNoya said.

Callahan called his indoor golf proposal the “Anytime Fitness of the golf industry.”

“My idea is an indoor golf simulator that would be open 24 hours a day,” he said. “Membership would be the primary way of business.”

The enterprise, he said, would offer flexibility and independence and be geared toward people wanting to improve their golf game as opposed to just entertainment.

Growing up as a serious golf player, he acknowledged it was difficult to get in winter practice.

“You need to get those hours in if you want to get better,” Callahan said.

Gutierrez’s Ixchel boutique gym would have a Mayan-themed decor and involve the use of THCV, an ingredient in cannabis present in low concentrations.

He also said research has indicated that the combination of THCV consumption and exercise could be a “groundbreaking” way to combat obesity.

However, Gutierrez stressed that since THCV is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, he could not market it as a weight-loss supplement.

Gutierrez said he would market his gym toward the Latina demographic, and include time for customers to visit with each other before class — considering that it takes about 30 minutes for THCV to activate.

“Furniture is going to be provided to promote the social scene,” Gutierrez said.

The judges for the Big Pitch competition were Joe Thiel, CEO of Innovate Marquette and executive director of Invent@NMU; Vince Nystrom, partner at Renaissance Venture Capital Fund; Ed Kim, CPD, MTRAC Innovation Hub for Advanced Computing Technologies; Denise Graves, university relations director, Michigan Economic Development Corporation; and MJ Cartwright, statewide innovations mentor, University of Michigan Innovation Partnerships Team.

A trade show and Business After Hours event took place before the Big Pitch. The Business After Hours event, which allowed time for networking opportunities with local businesses, was followed by the Mini Pitch Competition, a more informal competition where teams or individuals could pitch their ideas to a panel of judges for a chance to win a cash prize.

Carol Johnson, dean of the NMU College of Business, told the Big Pitch finalists, “You’re among a very kind of unique group,” she said, pointing out that they were chosen to make Thursday’s competition out of 40 entrants.

Following his win, McKaba said, “I was so grateful I was in the competition.”

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


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