Get MSPIRED: MAGNET attracts would-be entrepreneurs through annual pitch contest

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NelDerm has spent much of 2020 making face shields for front-line health workers. Despite this COVID-related pivot, the core of founder Kevin Nelson’s Akron startup remains developing easily removable bandages for use in hospitals, long-term care facilities, and other medical settings.

Fortunately, NelDerm and other nascent Northeast Ohio companies are not alone in this effort. Cleveland’sManufacturing Growth Advocacy Network (MAGNET) is helping entrepreneurs facilitate new physical products via the MSPIRE annual pitch competition. The contest, now in its fifth year, offers winners cash prizes as well as priceless assistance in marketing and product prototyping.

<span class="content-image-text">Kevin Nelson core of founder of NelDerm</span>Kevin Nelson core of founder of NelDermNelDerm was among 110 companies to enter the 2019 challenge, receiving $5,000 alongside a digital marketing assessment from Tenlo, and consulting and accounting services from Marcum LLP. NelDerm’s hypoallergenic wound dressing can be worn for multiple days without tearing the skin, thanks to a water-based adhesive that Nelson calls his “special sauce.”

“There’s lots of products out there that work too well,” says Nelson. “They can be a bit aggressive in how they adhere.”

NelDerm shifted to pandemic protection early on, garnering $4 million in revenue from its face shield visors.Nelson heard about MSPIRE from an entrepreneur-in-residence at Akron’s Bounce Innovation Hub, where MAGNET has an office.

Knowing his bandage invention needed funding and consulting support, Nelson entered the contest pleased that an organization outside the technology sector had an eye on local manufacturing.

“There are many startup competitions, but most are for tech,” Nelson says. “As a physical product company, I needed money and some advice. MAGNET has always been one of those solid organizations.”

The prize money helped take NelDerm’s bandages to market, while MAGNET consultants provided a roadmap on how to scale up the product. Nelson appreciated the “measure twice, cut once” approach imparted by MAGNET, as it allowed him to understand exactly where his work fit in the marketplace.

“We took a deep dive into our competitive advantage and how we stack up against what’s in the market,” says Nelson. “How are companies succeeding and how can we strive to do what they’re doing?”

Give me your best shot
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t stopped MPSIRE 2020 from forging ahead, though this year’s contest is online-only. Applicants to Northeast Ohio’s only physical product-focused pitch challenge have until Wednesday, Sept. 30 to put their ideas before a panel of judges representing regional entrepreneur and community partner organizations.

<span class="content-image-text">Alec Simon, MAGNET’s startup advisor</span>Alec Simon, MAGNET’s startup advisorSimilar to past MSPIRE years, the competition is open to innovations of all kinds—whether it’s an existing prototype or an idea that lives inside someone’s head—notes Alec Simon, MAGNET’s startup advisor and a member of the contest’s brain trust.

“We accept any type of product at any stage—it could be a drawing on a napkin, or a physical product you’re already selling,” says Simon. “We know how hard it is to get from idea to prototype. That’s where entrepreneurs need support. It’s difficult to find a service to make a prototype in a low-cost fashion.”

Prizes this year include up to $30,000 in fully-subsidized engineering projects; $10,000 in cash for a minority entrepreneur; and up to six months access to MAGNET’s iterator team.

Every applicant gets detailed feedback on their proposal as well as crucial connections to local organizations ready to boost a company to the next level.

2020 has put a focus on engineering and business backing for winning entries, Simon adds. To that end, prototypes will be turned around quickly to determine their worth within the industry.

“In the past, we offered business support, but this year we’re not just giving startups engineering services and sending them on their way,” says Simon. “We can help businesses get their ducks in a row to find out whether they have an innovation. The end goal is to have customers willing to pay for your product. That’s the true barometer [for success].”

<span class="content-image-text">NEOEx CEO Mark Haberbusch</span>NEOEx CEO Mark HaberbuschAnother 2019 MPSIRE winner, NEOEx, is creating an efficient propulsion system for unmanned aerial vehicles (known commonly as drones). CEO Mark Haberbusch says MAGNET has been an invaluable resource as his startup develops its liquid hydrogen energy system.

Haberbusch worked with MAGNET’s team on both planning and engineering, appreciating the double shot of deliberation considering he comes from a predominately technological background.

“I know what I don’t know,” says Haberbusch. “What do investors want to see from a pre-revenue company like mine? We’re a small company, but high-tech and new market. How can we convince investors that we can go to the next round?”

Haberbusch is aiming for a May 2021 unveiling of NEOEx’s first prototype system. In the meantime, he’s excited to be part of a growing manufacturing ecosystem led by MAGNET.

“Entrepreneurs like me have ideas—if there’s a market for it, let’s manufacture those things locally,” Haberbusch says. “That’s going to give seed companies an opportunity to grow and get through the hurdles they’re going to have, even ones they don’t know about. The value of MSPIRE for businesses is saying I’m going to give this my best shot.”

Douglas J. Guth
Douglas J. Guth

About the Author: Douglas J. Guth

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Crain’s Cleveland Business, Ideastream, and Middle Market Growth. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.