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Pitch-on-a-Train matches entrepreneurs, investors

Posted: August 19, 2013 - 12:00am

ANCHORAGE — The summer scenery of Turnagain Arm, plus the nostalgia of a train ride, plus lunch at a world-renowned resort equals what? Undoubtedly the perfect setting for conducting business.

The Anchorage Economic Development Corp. team combined those elements with investors and some of Alaska’s most promising entrepreneurs to form the first annual Pitch-On-A-Train business competition. The Aug. 1 event was the third leg of the group’s four-part Alaska Entrepreneurship Week, which ran from July 25 to Aug. 4.

Five emerging startups were invited to present their ideas to a panel of eight Alaska business leaders and investors in the friendly competition as the Alaska Railroad train headed from Anchorage to Portage. Each person or pair was allotted five minutes to make their pitch.

Altogether, 80 people gathered to take a train ride and do a little networking.

Anchorage’s Brian McKinnon, with his company Aknuna Technologies and patent-pending design for a sealed high volume industrial fueling system, won the Pitch. In addition to the $5,000 business startup package, which included internet and phone plans and free advertising consulting, McKinnon said he came away with something even more valuable — dozens of business connections.

“I think every single person that was involved is going to make it,” McKinnon said. “There were no losers (in the competition).”

Other participants had beginning ventures in ranging fields. ArXotica is a Bethel-based is a company with skin-care products that incorporate salmon oils and extracts from native Alaska plants.

Airlite Inflatable Snowshoes of Anchorage offers a patented inflatable snowshoe designed to be packed away for backcountry emergency situations.

GearSpoke is an online gear rental startup that provides individuals with outdoor gear with a marketplace to rent their canoes, tents or skis when they aren’t in use.

Finally, RLB Productions presented an idea for a reality TV show centered on what Alaska bed and breakfasts and resorts prepare for their guests.

McKinnon said he had several contacts that could help his fellow participants and that their connections circled around.

“We’re all going to be supportive of each other,” he said.

AEDC Vice President John Bittner said the goal of the morning-long event was to enable the participants and spectators alike to make new connections.

“What we were hoping would come out of this was, with putting the participants in the room with that collection of investors and business leaders and bankers — that they would really be able to hone in on, ‘OK, here’s what I’m good at, here’s where I need a little work and here are the people who can help me.’ And I think that is really what came out of this,” Bittner said.

The format, with each pitch being made in front of the investor group gathered around a long table, mimicked an investor meeting or sales pitch to a large company, McKinnon said.

After being the keynote speaker at AEDC’s economic forecast luncheon the day prior, Gallup Inc. CEO Jim Clifton rode the train to Portage and hopped the bus to Girdwood for lunch at Alyeska Resort with the rest of the group.

Clifton said he has no doubt all five ideas can be successful, it’s whether or not the entrepreneurs are able to survive the tough beginning, or “winter season,” as he called it, that every business faces. He noted that AEDC’s encouragement of startup businesses could go a long way toward their eventual success.

“I think what you see here is what every city’s got to do,” Clifton said. “It’s more about the energy and the engagement of the leaders because what you’re really trying to do is grow the entrepreneurial spirit.”

Longtime Alaskan entrepreneur and head of angel investment firm Alaska Venture Partners, John Wanamaker was one of the panel of eight that judged the Pitch participants. Simply meeting and brainstorming with like-minded individuals is extremely beneficial for early-stage entrepreneurs, he said.

“(The train) was a good environment. People were mixing and that in and of itself creates an environment for collaboration,” Wanamaker said.

The participants were chosen because they had won or finished high in local or state emerging business competitions, Bittner said.

McKinnon won the 2013 Alaska Business Plan competition in April with Aknuna Technologies. The ArXotica team recently received a $5,000 investment from Kiva, a crowdfunding website.

His next step is finding investors that fit with his vision, McKinnon said. If he can raise the $400,000 he estimates he needs to start producing the fueling system, McKinnon hopes to be selling them to North Slope producers within six months, he said.

“It’s a matter of finding the correct investors,” he said. “I’m going to spend the rest of my life with these people. I’d really like to find the right ones.”

Wanamaker said he applauds what AEDC has done to showcase Alaska’s innovative and daring entrepreneurs.

“I think (AEDC has) done more for entrepreneurs in the last year, year-and-a-half in particularly technology fields — they’ve brought a certain velocity to the environment that hadn’t existed before,” Wanamaker said.

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