Make your pitch: Kentuckians with bright business ideas make a play for funding and mentoring

COVINGTON, Ky. - Chris Bailey wasn’t the greatest public speaker until about a year ago.

But now, if you’ll lend him an ear, he’ll tell you all about his company and its product, GearBrake. It’s news you can use if your vehicle has a manual transmission.

“We have a brake light module that can be installed in just about any vehicle, specifically one that has a manual transmission,” Bailey said. “It can detect when you’re slowing down, when you’re braking and downshifting and automatically light the brake lights.”

It’s a story—or "pitch," as entrepreneurs call it—that Bailey has told at least twenty times, in “a formal setting” to investors.

Northern Kentucky business and start-up owners could have the same chance to talk to the professionals about their start-ups on Aug. 28.

The Kentucky Angels Pitch Competition is a statewide initiative to help new, local companies get funding and exposure. Regional events are being held across the Commonwealth and winners from the local events will compete at the state level against each other.

Northern Kentucky’s competition happens at the UpTech Accelerator, in Covington.

For Bailey, who participated in and won the Louisville regional event, competing allowed GearBrake to get some funding and some exposure to local investors.

“We needed more money for some equipment as well as some marketing and some advertising,” Bailey said, adding that GearBrake has participated in several pitch contests. “We enjoy these competitions. One, because of the prize, and also because of the feedback we get from different judges and exposure in the community.”

Bailey’s sentiments are exactly what the Kentucky Innovation Network, parent group of these competitions, hopes innovative Kentuckians will get out of the experience.

Casey Barach serves as the director of the Kentucky Innovation Network in Northern Kentucky, which is a partnership between the state’s Cabinet of Economic Development and local development offices. Northern Kentucky’s office is Tri-County Economic Development Corporation.

“Part of the efforts, the obvious effort is to help innovative start-up ideas get started building and growing,” Barach said. "So this year the State of Kentucky started a program called the Kentucky Angel Network. The idea is that there is a statewide angel network, angels across the Commonwealth get a chance to look at investable companies once-a-month and review them.”

Angel investors are people seeking to invest in new business ventures. A company might have some funding when first entering the business world, and angel investors provide more capital to work with and act as mentors when businesses are just starting out.

Next week’s pitch competition provides a place for new Northern Kentucky companies to get noticed.

“This event is kind of a two-fold, one is to spread the word that there is a Kentucky Angel Network and that anyone who is interested in that area should get involved,” Barach said. "Secondly, folks attending, we are training to expose them to the next generation of entrepreneurs. The companies that are presenting are very exciting, very early-state companies.”

To apply, companies are asked to fill out an application; about 20 applications have been submitted for the Northern Kentucky pitch contest so far. The deadline for applications is August 20.

“Only four companies are going to be chosen to present that night, be we, as a part of our work, will follow up with (companies who don’t make the competition) and will make sure we are working with them to build and develop,” he explained.

Investors are helping newcomers like Shannon Mullins, of Hindman, Ky., with things like product development.

Her business, My Status Bracelet, won the Pikeville, Ky. regional pitch competition.

A product targeted at kids ages eight to 15, My Status Bracelet is a wearable band that indicates the wearer’s relationship status.

“I was on Facebook and I noticed that people like changing their status on Facebook and it was around the time that ‘Silly Bandz’ (rubber bracelets) were popular,” Mullins said. “They were selling like crazy and I thought, ‘There has to be a way for children to change their status on a bracelet.'”

The product is meant to appeal to school-aged students who might not be allowed by parents to use Facebook or social networking sites yet.

Public speaking and presenting are not exactly in her wheelhouse, but Mullins gave it a try after missing a shot on ABC’s popular pitch competition ‘Shark Tank.’

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“We thought this pitch competition would be a wonderful place to get exposure,” she explained. “I was out of my element. I’m not a public speaker and it was very frightening for me. But I wanted this so bad, I had to really force myself to do it.”

“I feel very fortunate to live in an area that has a Network that not only sponsors a pitch competition, but is there for you through every aspect of starting and expanding your business,” Mullins wrote in an email. “I've had countless emails, meetings, and phone calls answered. I wouldn't be nearly as far along without the help from the Kentucky Angel Network.”

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