Startup Weekend Eugene Food 2019 Finished Strong

The first-ever West Coast Techstars Startup Weekend devoted to food started strong on Friday, November 8 and finished strong in an evening of pitches from five teams on Sunday, November 10. Techstars Startup Weekend is a launchpad for entrepreneurs creating startups in a single weekend. While seven Startup Weekends have been held in the Eugene area in years past, those were open to startups in any industry. This time participants were focused on building businesses in the food ecosystem.

“Some of the most prominent, innovative, and progressive food organizations in the world got their start in the greater Eugene area,” said Micah Elconin, director of Eugene’s Table. “It was powerful to witness the seeding and sprouting of more local changer makers and entrepreneurs this weekend.” 

Startup Weekend combines volunteer organizers, mentors, coaches, and of course, participants. Each entrepreneur starts off Friday night with a 1-minute pitch to tell the audience the gist of their business idea. The audience votes for the ideas that they think have the most potential. The coaches and mentors work with the ideas that seem the most viable, so the participants may join other teams. So the teams form and research is conducted with the advice of their mentors and coaches, the ideas are likely to change. At final pitches, each team has five minutes to impress the judges.

The winning team, SuperShroom, started off as an idea for a performance-enhancing mushroom jerky as pitched by Geoff Falkenberg. His team members, Emma Powers, Jack Richardson, and Connor Nolan, each pitched their own ideas, but they joined forces with Geoff, who grows mushrooms in his home. Emma pitched an idea for an app that links community members with meals during times of crisis. Jack, a farmer, pitched an idea on developing a market for non-GMO sugar made from locally grown beets. Connor’s idea involved nutritionally dense foods made from kelp. All agreed that if SuperShroom takes off, future iterations of the company’s snacks would involve both beet sugar and kelp.

SuperShroom won over the judges in part because they actually showed up on pitch night with a prototype mushroom jerky that they had made over the weekend. Judge Justin Freeman, owner of Bagel Sphere, who announced the winning team, was blown away by how much the team accomplished in 54 hours. Judges were impressed by the way they utilized effective and free online resources for research and the detail they put into their pitch about their supply chain, their finances, their expenses, and their future potential market.

Out of 28 ideas that were initially pitched, five teams formed and worked throughout the weekend to develop their ideas and give final pitches on Sunday night. The team representing Second Harvest Feed Company came in third with their pitch about collecting local industrial food waste, in particular from brewing, and turning the grain into a high-quality animal feed. SpaceKitchen, and AirBnB-type model for renting commercial kitchens from other restaurants who aren’t fully utilizing the space, came in second. Not surprisingly, SuperShroom needs a commercial kitchen in which to make their product—a fact which might kickstart SpaceKitchen even more.

Localicious, which would have turned locally sourced produce into frozen, pre-portioned meal kits, spoke about wanting to reduce the 20% of the waste stream that comes from food that goes to waste. Willamette Glass, an idea for a local refillable and reusable beverage container, was one of the ideas that advanced from the first round of pitches, but ultimately, the team’s research over the course of the weekend showed that it didn’t seem to be a viable business idea. 

While not every team that participates, or even that wins, will continue on with their idea, the point of the weekend is not necessarily to start a business, although that certainly can happen. It’s to surround participants with ideas and individuals with skills and experience to drive innovation. People who have never met before learn how to work together, do market research, develop a minimum viable product, and learn from coaches and mentors who can offer relevant experience. 

This was the first time mentors, participants, and coaches had come together to support food-related business ideas, and lead organizer Lauren Jerome, founder of Mindbox Studios and Redefining Women in Tech, says it was well worth doing. “I loved the way the food theme shined at the Sunday presentations,” she says. “It really activated a different part of our community and many people were vocalizing their excitement about it. It was cool to have judges and attendees with a specific interest in food who may not have gotten involved in a general Startup Weekend.”

Lori Spencer, a brand strategist, mentored team SuperShroom and said she was proud of their hard work and commitment over the weekend. She said in a LinkedIn post, “Loved how you four came together as a group. I had my eye on all of you from the beginning. It was meant to be . . . great teamwork, problem-solving, dividing and conquering.”

A wide variety of more than 30 coaches and mentors, from large name brands such as Ninkasi and Coconut Bliss to local agencies such as Drawn, came together to support each team. Four judges presided over the final decision on the winning teams, determining which team had done the most work in three key areas: Validation (i.e., did the team get out and talk to customers and validate their idea?), Design and Functionality (i.e., did they create an MVP or prototype and is the usability of the product easy and friendly?), and a Business Model (i.e. do they show a path to profitability and does their solution solve a core need/problem?). 

Emma, part of the SuperShroom team, said midday Sunday before final pitches that her experience has been “really cool.” “I think I have a good handle on it which kind of surprised me since I’m not coming from a marketing background. I left yesterday thinking I was exhausted but today I came in and said, ‘We have a really good idea.’ It’s exhilarating.”

On the judge’s panel was Seth Revoal, partner and founder at Revolution Design Group; Ashely Espinoza, Sector Strategy Director at Lane Workforce Partnership; Justin Freeman, CEO at Bagel Sphere; and Stacy Kraker, Director of Marketing and Sales at Hummingbird Wholesale. 

Nick Symmonds, an Olympian runner and founder of Run Gum caffeinated gum, opened the weekend by speaking about the entrepreneurial mindset—he made money at age 7 by tying flies for his father’s flyfishing friends. “You never have ‘made it’ as an entrepreneur,” he says. “You’re always aspiring to level up, take it to the next level. The problems you have at the start of your business are the same ones you have at the level Run Gum is at now: staffing, HR, warehouse space, employees . . .  the problems are just bigger. The more you learn at this stage the more prepared you will be later on when you have more to deal with.”

Learn more about Startup Weekend Eugene Food and learn how to stay in touch or get involved with future events at the event page.