Pitch perfect: Chalk paint maker, medical device distributor among 2021 Mspire winners

Hikia “Coco” Dixon recently got an order from a big-box store for 100,000 bags of her natural paint additive. Although an exciting opportunity, Dixon understood immediately that she could not meet this level of demand alone.

“I knew I needed manufacturing help – this was a part of the business I just did not know about,” says Dixon, founder and proprietor of Coco’s Chalky Paints in the 5th Street Arcades.

Alec Simon, MAGNET’s startup advisorDixon entered the Mspire pitch competition—hosted by Cleveland’s Manufacturing Growth Advocacy Network (MAGNET)—unsure if the organization would even be interested in her business, as she perceived the annual contest as technology-centric.

Not only was MAGNET intrigued by Coco’s Chalky Paints—which concocts additives that transform any type of paint into chalk paint—the group named Dixon’s burgeoning enterprise as one of seven winners for this year’s competition. While the competition was held in October, the 2021 winners were not announced until December.

Alongside various prizes given to her fellow pitch-perfect compatriots, Dixon will receive $10,000 in supply chain consultation services. Dixon was among 12 nascent owners to present their final pitches to a virtual panel of judges, a group narrowed from an initial field of 45 applicants and 18 semifinalists.

“After the first pitch, I felt like I bombed it, because I only talked in generalities,” recalls Dixon. “I asked for another chance to talk more on the manufacturing side. When I heard I’d won, it was a surprise. There [were] all these tech guys doing stuff for hospitals, so I was blown away when MAGNET contacted me.”

Dixon operates her chalk paint outfit out of a 400-square-foot shop at the Arcades while also operating another 20,000 square feet of previously vacant space as a furniture showroom, event/workshop space, and private marketplace for area creatives of color.

The big Mspire win arrives as Dixon prepares for a busy spring season that hopefully includes her product’s arrival at the new big-box client. With strategic consulting from MAGNET, Dixon is confident about reaching her goals.

“I want to get my business to a point where I can pass it down and create generational wealth,” says Dixon, a mother of four.

Kevin Nelson of NelDerm Heel P.O.D.Grateful for the help
NelDerm founder Kevin Nelson is a two-time winner of the MSPIRE contest, which is now in its sixth year. A hypoallergenic wound dressing entered into the 2019 challenge garnered NelDerm a cash grant as well as marketing and assessment services.

For this go-round, Nelson gained praises for his Heel P.O.D. device—a memory foam apparatus designed to mitigate foot related pressure injuries common in medical settings.

An acronym for Pressure Offloading Device, the appliance secures to a patient’s leg near the calf, comfortably elevating the appendage. Nelson, whose business spent much of 2020 making face shields for front-line health workers, found a gap in a new market upon conferring with long-term care professionals.

“This was a pain point for acute care hospitals and home health companies,” says Nelson. “Most commonly they’d use pillows (to elevate patients’ heels), or something like a moon boot that would get bulky and hot. Boots are also expensive and hard to keep clean because they’re made from absorbent fabrics.”

Placing among this year’s Mspire finalists earned NelDerm a $10,000 manufacturing consultation grant. A recently opened 10,000-square-foot production facility in Brunswick will produce 1,000 heel devices monthly beginning in February—the pods will retail for $79.95, a price Nelson says separates him from most competitors.

NelDerm Heel P.O.D.The medical device producer says he is also thankful to MAGNET for the priceless assistance it gives to manufacturing-focused entrepreneurs.

“I’m so very grateful for what MAGNET does in holding this type of competition, because the lack of support for physical product companies can be discouraging,” Nelson says. “MAGNET provides a level of support that’s pretty unheard of. Without them, I’m not sure we get from where we were a few months ago to opening a facility.”

Alec Simon, MAGNET’s startup advisor and a member of the contest’s brain trust, says this year’s batch of challenge applicants—whether or not they made the final rounds—presented ideas and products that could be game-changers within their respective fields.

Simon says, “The volume was down in terms of applicants, but we were incredibly impressed with the quality of companies this year. We are excited about the winners as well as all of the folks who applied. It’s just a strong crop of companies.”

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.