TRAVERSE CITY — Laurie Curtis is the daughter of Kewadin apple farmers, and she’s bothered by the northern Michigan apple grower’s bind: most apples are sent downstate to processors, who pay only about 10 to 15 cents a pound.
Curtis thinks farmers should be able to prepare their own apples so they can be sold fresh in stores, so she came up with an idea to do just that.
Curtis thought up a washing and size-sorting system convenient enough for small- and mid-size farmers to use in a business class at Northwestern Michigan College. The idea for the system, called FARM GRADE, was a semifinalist in a statewide entrepreneur competition.
Three other NMC students’ ideas were semifinalists in the 2013 Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition. The competition awards three student ideas and three Michigan companies financial prizes. None of the NMC students won, but they got a chance to make business connections and work on presenting their ideas to a larger audience.
“The end result was a lot of networking and resources to pursue this project,” said Curtis.
Student participants were from schools across the state. Thirty-five semifinalists were selected to attend the conference in Detroit from Nov. 12 through 14. They were scored based on a YouTube video presentation and an in-person pitch before a panel of judges.
“I hope they got some good feedback on their business idea and I hope they got some fantastic practice in terms of public speaking,” said Lauren Bigelow, the head of Growth Capital Network and an organizer of the competition.
This was the fourth year of the competition, and Bigelow said many student participants have gone on to start their own companies and sometimes even compete in the company competition of Accelerate Michigan.
One local team made it into the competition’s top 10. NMC student Dakota Wyatt Porter, 18, submitted an idea he and his brother Garret, 15, devised: an LED-lighting kit that allows people to custom-decorate their own sports equipment, like snowboards, skis and bikes. The product, called Action Glow, already received a micro-loan from the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and was launched for sale online this month.
Semifinalist Jason Roggensee, a Leelanau farmer and NMC student, is sick of having to fix wheel barrows and other farm transportation devices. He invented a tarp-like bag that can be dragged off-road by a vehicle. The product, BAGTODRAG, could transport up to 400 pounds.
Christopher Schmidt, the fourth semifinalist, pitched his idea for a company that uses unmanned aerial systems, or drones, to help farmers monitor fields and electric companies inspect power lines.
Schmidt said that although he didn’t win the competition, he plans to apply again next year.
“After talking with some of the other people in the competition, I’d say it’s clear that you really have to be prepared in order to do well in a competition like this,” Schmidt said.