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Innovative business ideas surface at 'Trout Tank'

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Photo by Tamie Meck Paonia entrepreneur Merrily Talbott pitches her business ideas at the ICELab "Trout Tank." ICELab is a business incubator for startups through Western Colorado State University that provides support for business entrepreneurs in Delta

Innovative business ideas can come from anywhere, at any time. But how many great business ideas never come to be because the path from idea to launch can be daunting, difficult to navigate, and downright scary.

A collaborative program under way at Western State Colorado University, ICELab Accelerator is "a unique mentor-driven program" that pairs high-growth business startups with world-class mentors, advisors and investors. ICELab (Innovation, Creativity, Entrepreneurship), a "startup for startups" serving Delta and Gunnison counties, provides tools and mentoring that allow entrepreneurs to create, launch and run a successful business.

Rather than putting energy and resources into recruiting big companies and their jobs to the area, ICELab "aims to build jobs from within," said program director Delaney Keating. "It's a new way of growing and supporting and thinking about businesses."

Known as "Cohort Uno," the first five entrepreneurs to complete ICELab's Incubator program pitched their ideas to a panel of professionals recently at "Trout Tank," a Shark Tank-like event held at the Paradise Theatre in Paonia. Trout Tank panelists were Paonia businesswoman Elaine Brett; Zander Parker, CPA and CEO of Parker Consultants and Accountants; and Josh Freed, founder of Proximity Space co-work space in Montrose. Panelists ask questions and provide feedback to help entrepreneurs fine-tune their skills and prepare for meetings with potential investors and partners. Trout Tank also marks completion of the 12-week program.

ICELab is funded in part by a federal grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. Delta and Gunnison counties were eligible for federal funding due to the impacts by the closing of the North Fork area coal mines, said Keating.

Pitching their ideas were Mark and Ali Drucker of Crested Butte, who make and market "Specialty instant coffee that guarantees a perfect cup on the go..."

The Kitchen Project would allow Gunnison resident Rachel Alter to "establish the commercial kitchen necessary to support and grow" the Gunnison-area food industry through short-term rental of kitchen space, cooking and nutrition classes. Alter said she learned a lot about shared kitchen space from her visits to Edesia Warehouse commercial kitchen in Paonia.

Tyligent founder Ty Long, a student at WSCU, designs and manufactures more efficient drying systems for clothing and gear. His ready-to-launch products could have broad implications for firefighters and outdoor professionals who rely on dry gear for safety and comfort, as well as defense applications.

Two Delta County entrepreneurs also pitched ideas.

Delta CPA Ken Richards created a Cloud-based software that would bring accounting billing practices more fairly in line with services. The idea for "predictive pricing" grew out of a celebration he and wife Doris planned at a swanky big-city restaurant. The menu had no prices, said Richards. They were asked which credit card they preferred, but upon inquiring about prices were told their purchases would be tracked and the bill presented at the end of the evening.

"Not knowing whether to expect a three-hundred-dollar bill or a three-thousand-dollar bill, we got up and left," said Richards. "Without transparency, there were no winners. We didn't get a special night out, and the restaurant didn't get a sale."

Richards and his business partner of 15 years began developing the software four years ago. He learned about ICELab in the DCI. The timing was perfect, said Richards. The product was ready to introduce and he was transitioning out of his accounting business. It was through the accelerator program that they got the contacts, said Richards.

Richards has been self-employed much of his career and has even been a business consultant. He believes he benefited from the experience, and found that it was nice to be on the receiving end of the service. "It's not good to go it alone," he said. "Everybody needs mentoring."

With mental health a top issue of the time, Merrily Talbott's idea for "Get Savvy" is timely. It grew out of her more than 25 years of work with teenagers. A teacher, counselor and founder of the Paonia Players youth theater group, she recalled her own teen years and the difficult transition to college. "I really could have used some support," said Talbott.

At age 21 she became a college peer counselor. Students today have so much to navigate, like sexuality, drugs, social media, said Talbott. When her students began heading off to college they would call, and later, text, for advice. "They feel more comfortable texting," said Talbott.

Get Savvy is a text-based support program offering real-time advice for college-age students facing difficult challenges. The service isn't a crisis hotline, said Talbott, who has worked a crisis hotline. Rather, it aims to reach students before their problems reach crisis stage. A thousand college students a year commit suicide, said Talbott, and one in three will, for a number of reasons, drop out. While the emotional cost is high, so is the financial cost. The average loss to colleges is $1.6 million per year, a $4.5 billion loss to U.S. economy.

Get Savvy is on track to launch in 2019, said Talbott.

Talbott also created , "Placebos: mints you can believe in." Research shows that placebos work, even when people know it's a placebo, said Talbott. Also a marketing tool for Get Savvy, mints are available at Denver Tattered Cover Book Stores and The Cirque, Refinery, and Delicious Orchards in Paonia. Inside each package of mints is a "tiny scroll" offering mindfulness tips and practical suggestions for dealing with problems. A portion of proceeds benefits mental health organizations including Get Savvy.

"For me it's all about believing in people," said Talbott. "We each have the power to do something about it."

ICELab also honored Delta businessman John Angelo, with the first "Molecule of Change" award, "for going above and beyond in helping with ICELab." The award honors "a business or leader who uplifts or inspires the whole."

Keating noted that a similar program will be offered through the Technical College of the Rockies' ENGAGE Innovation Center in Delta starting in 2018 and funded by a $684,000 EDA grant.

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