Originally published April 29, 2016 in Virginia Business
by Veronica Garabelli
From food to gadgets, nothing was off the table at IdeaFest, a business pitch competition held April 1 at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville.
Nineteen groups competed for $10,000 in available funds, which was split among four winners. The $5,000 grand prize went to Park and Diamond Inc., a team of Virginia Tech students that pitched an innovative bike helmet.
The other winners were from North Carolina. They include: UChef, which came in second for a monthly delivery service that teaches cooking; Trio Labs, which snagged third place for a new, 3-D printing technology concept; and FiYABox, which won an audience choice award for a portable lunch box that heats food on the go.
“I had never been to Danville but do plan to return,” says Mary Coggins, owner and founder of Charlotte-based UChef, which is launching this summer. “I enjoyed meeting the IdeaFest and [event sponsor Launch Place] team and see the value in a continued relationship.”
The competition, now in its third year, drew almost 70 applicants from 12 states. That’s up from about 40 applicants when the contest was first held in 2014. The prize money also has doubled since 2014.
“We have no idea if someone is actually going to bring an idea back here to base here, but it’s just the fact of getting them here, getting them exposed to Danville,” says Freddie Wydner, who is director of agribusiness development for Pittsylvania County.
Wydner founded IdeaFest with Jeff Gignac, Lauren Mathena and Varun Sadana. They developed plans for the competition in 2013 during the Middle Border Forward fellowship. The program encouraged young leaders to have a positive impact on the Danville region, an area that has faced high unemployment since the decline of the tobacco, textile and furniture industries.
“I want people to understand — especially going through economic hard times — you don’t have to rely on an employer if you can come up with an idea that will create value,” says Gignac, a trust officer at American National Bank & Trust Co. in Danville.
That message of empowerment reached at least one Danville native. Ashley Henry is a single mom and waitress from Danville who says the event made her grow a little bit stronger. She currently has to rely on government assistance but would like to change that.
“I want to get away from that,” she says. “I want to start a business and … be able to grow with my children and not grow old on my children.”