Spokane's own Shark Tank has pumped some $800K into the regional economy

Finalists in the 2018 Northwest Entrepreneur Competition (NEC) will face a panel of judges at Whitworth University later this month. Winners will share $42,000 of prize money, along with $20,000 in professional resources. Since inception nearly 18 years ago, the competition has contributed $800,000 to emerging businesses in our region.

The NEC is the region's largest collaborative business plan competition, providing young entrepreneurs with the necessary tools to turn a business plan into a life plan.

click to enlarge Tom Simpson
Tom Simpson

"This is one of the best ways to prepare to launch your business, get exposure to regional business leaders and investors and potentially win some money to make your business idea a reality," says Dan Wadkins, a partner at the Lee & Hayes law firm.

Sixty-five student-led teams from eight local colleges, universities and high schools submitted plans for this year's competition. Teams self-identified within the following categories: undergraduate technology, undergraduate traditional and open (student and community partnerships). Each team was required to submit an executive summary and professional pitch for their venture.

Through a systematic process, the NEC challenges applicants to evaluate the quality of their idea, the scalability, the competitive advantage, the strength of their team and then helps them to hone their communication through a condensed series of pitches.

Community leaders and professionals from the region convene and lend their expertise to evaluate, judge, coach and provide feedback. Through a series of intensive evaluations and revisions of their business models, finalist teams will present their full business plan on April 17.

"I really enjoy the chance to see how some of the new student ideas have developed as well as to provide feedback to budding entrepreneurs moving forward into small businesses," says Michael Ebinger, director of the WSU Center for Innovation. "It's great to see the quality of the plans and the projects improving steadily over the five years that I have judged, too."

Historically, one out of nine competitors have gone on to start their business. etailz, founded by Gonzaga University student Josh Neblett, was a winner of the 2008 competition and currently employs over 210. Other examples include:

Style Her Empowered (SHE)

A 2017 first-place winner, SHE provides girls in the developing world a way to become economically self-sustainable and educated through the production of school uniforms. SHE believes in a world where every girl is empowered with the resources, skill set and confidence she needs to obtain her education and determine her own future. SHE has helped 65 women in 2017 and is on track to empower 150 women in 2018.

Safeguard Equipment

A 2016 first-place winner, Safeguard produces wearable technology, an "electrocution solution" for utility workers and electricians that aims to create a safer working environment for anyone working around high-voltage power systems. The company has received funding and mentoring support from Avista and the Spokane Angel Alliance.

Vessel Coffee Roasters

A 2015 third-place winner, Vessel buys ethical beans and roasts exceptional coffee. In addition, the company provides microfinance funding to entrepreneurs in regions where Vessel sources its beans. Currently Vessel employs 10 people and has served more than 10,000 customers.


A 2014 first-place winner, Photoboxx is a social media hashtag printer serving marquee brands including HoopFest, Coca Cola, Teen Vogue, the Seattle Seahawks, Harley Davidson and Facebook. Photoboxx has grown to eight full-time employees and several part-time event employees.

The NEC is exactly the kind of entrepreneurial infrastructure that Spokane and the Inland Northwest need more of. It provides teams of generally younger entrepreneurs the experience that most closely replicates actually starting a business. It requires market research, product planning, financial analysis, team building and pitching. Yet this is all accomplished in a low-risk environment — like playing a scrimmage before a game. Unlike in sports, however, entrepreneurs rarely get an early chance to practice.

Spokane hasn't always been good at keeping its talented young people here at home — or attracting students from out of town to stay. During or after college is an ideal time for an inspired entrepreneur to launch a business, as they are likely unconstrained by such responsibilities as mortgages and kids. Thanks to NEC, students may not only be inspired to start a new business here, but the prize money can help make it a reality.

The 2018 NEC will be held in Weyerhaeuser Hall at Whitworth University on Tuesday, April 17, and is open to the public. Presentations will be held from 12:30 to 3:30 pm, with a reception at 3:30 pm and the awards ceremony starting at 4 pm. More details at nwentrep.com. ♦

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