MSPIRE pitch competition puts manufacturing entrepreneurs in the spotlight

It’s that time of year again, as Cleveland’s Manufacturing Growth Advocacy Network (MAGNET) readies the launch of this year’s MSPIRE pitch competition.

The annual contest is a bit different for 2021, as MAGNET is inviting manufacturing technology creators as well, rather than just focusing on physical products.

Alec Simon, MAGNET’s startup advisor “We still want those products, but we’re also going after apps, websites and sensors,” says Alec Simon, MAGNET’s startup advisor and a member of the pitch competition’s braintrust. “The idea is to help anyone making something in the advanced manufacturing industry.”

Now in its sixth iteration, MSPIRE is taking applications through September 8. Finalists will pitch to judges on October 20, with awards announced on October 29. The regional pitch challenge received 74 applications in 2020—and organization officials expect to match that number this year.

Prizes include $20,000 in engineering and design assistance, as well as another $20,000 in sales, marketing, and strategy development support. Winners also get booth placement at The Manufacturing and Technology Show in November, alongside strategic consulting from Tenlo Digital Marketing Agency.

This year, MSPIRE will host its largest ever panel of judges, with market sector reps sitting beside venture capitalists and other industry funders.

Simon says, “A big part of this decision is wanting companies to have more exposure to potential investors. In addition to [being] time-consuming, building a company is expensive. Connecting people to groups that fund startups or provide feedback on how they can access funding is very valuable.”

A decision on whether this year’s challenge is in-person or virtual will be determined in October—MAGNET held last year’s contest completely online without any major technological hitches.

The advocacy group is currently connecting with its partners—law firms, marketing companies, community development corporations, and other industries—to attract more applicants.

Engaging product-ready entrepreneurs is the goal, made doubly possible through MAGNET’s wrap-around resources available, at a cost, year-round.

 “The mission is to help companies make progress and learn as much as possible,” says Simon. “Any company coming through MSPIRE may or may not want to work with us. But we’re willing to work with them, whether or not they’re selected as a winner.”

‘A head start, a leap up’
Argyle Scientific, which uses "carbon-infiltrated surface technology" to inhibit bacterial growth on surgical implants, presented its winning pitch in last year’s MSPIRE contest—joining fellow entrepreneurial 2020 victors Bust A Move, eSens, Bringht Line and Rippin Roller.

Argyle Scientific founder Greg Von ForellArgyle Scientific founder Greg Von Forell established the startup in 2019, determined to prevent infections contracted during orthopedic surgeries. Von Forell developed implantable devices with modified carbon surface technology at his alma mater, Brigham Young University, a collaboration that also encompasses talent from Northeast Ohio startups.

“Our technology uses biomimicry,” Von Forell says. “Dragonflies have a wing structure that bacteria doesn’t stick to. We’re mimicking that through a process called carbon-infused carbon nanotubes.”

In seeking to prove the clinical merit of this innovation, Von Forell is targeting niche markets with high infection rates and a relatively quick path to market. Akron’s Bounce Innovation Hub introduced him to MSPIRE—harnessing MAGNET’s engineering expertise through the pitch competition became an easy decision.

“There’s a heavy mechanical component to this technology, and mechanical engineering is a part of building our devices,” says Von Forell. “Being a startup, we need all the resources we can get. MAGNET has lots of ways to help out companies.”

As a pitch winner, Argyle Scientific—coined after the diamond-patterned sock—procured $10,000 worth of technical assistance, including device manufacture from MAGNET third-party contractors. Business analysis on manufacturing processes, meanwhile, illuminated critical company processes and procedures.

 “It’s a head start, a leap up,” says Von Forell of the experience. “There’s only so many things you can do without resources. It’s all about getting to the next step and raising more funds.”

Over the next three years, Argyle Scientific will continue to prove out its innovation—a winding road of FDA approval, market placement and connection-making. Von Forell is motivated by the challenges ahead and the opportunity to bridge a gap in the marketplace.

“I’m just doing something to improve the lives of patients,” he says. “I could get a comfy job somewhere, but I want to make a difference.”

MAGNET continues to move the needle with MSPIRE, supported by Ohio’s Entrepreneurial Service Program and the Ohio Manufacturing Extension Partnership. Considering innovation is a critical economic driver, the competition puts manufacturing-focused entrepreneurs at the forefront of investment, notes MAGNET official Simon.

“Seeing these companies come in, there’s lots of really great ideas out there,” Simon says.

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.   
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