For five local entrepreneurs, funding that could jump start their small business is one step closer to becoming a reality. The Carroll Biz Challenge entries have been whittled from 15 to five in advance of the live portion of the competition Nov. 22 at McDaniel College.
Finalists include a Westminster lavender farm, an Eldersburg trampoline park, voice recording software that measures the tone of your voice, a social media website designed specifically for Westminster and a gift of muffins that no recipient will forget.
Biz Challenge Founder Jason Stambaugh said this year's entries were all strong and "pretty hard to narrow down."
A panel of seven, not including Stambaugh, chose the five entrepreneurs who will be put on the spot at McDaniel in an event Stambaugh likes to describe as "American Idol meets Shark Tank."
Entrepreneurs will be required to give a five-minute pitch before a 10-minute grilling in front of a four-member panel. The panel, along with a cumulative audience vote, will ultimately decide which entrepreneur walks away with the $5,000 grand prize.
This year, the audience selection also carries with it a $500 prize. Also added is the Big Idea Award, which will be selected by the panel. The award will give one entrepreneur the chance to meet with local venture capitalists.
Debra Cancro, founder of Autonomy Engine, said the grand prize money would be "huge" for her business.
Cancro and her husband have developed VoiceVibes, which is voice recognition software that measures the pace and pitch of your voice and informs you how you come across to your audience.
By winning the Biz Challenge, Cancro said she would be able to perform a third-party market validation study, which she hopes will help convince investors that people will buy the product.
She said she would also use the funding to build the first microphone prototype for VoiceVibes.
"There is a lot of work that we need to do that a little money right now can go a long way," Cancro said of the prize.
For Dawn Pritchard, founder of Silver Linings Lavender Farm, the grand prize could potentially move her opening up by one year.
"It would be very, very, very instrumental," she said.
Pritchard is in the process of securing a Westminster location to start Silver Linings, which would be an agritourism destination hosting events and festivals while offering visitors a chance to walk through lavender fields and purchase lavender products.
Pritchard, a horticulturist and Sykesville resident, said she was inspired to pursue her own lavender farm after visiting farms in England.
"It smells beautiful, it looks beautiful, and a big, giant field of purple is gorgeous to walk through," she said.
IndiThat is a local social media site aiming to connect its users to what they enjoy most in Westminster.
The project, organized by four friends, could be launched in as soon as six months. While the money would be a significant financial push, the group says the publicity gained through the Carroll Biz Challenge is another benefit.
"This is what gives us credibility to go to advertisers," Jason Harder said of the Biz Challenge experience.
Harder is joined in the venture by friends Lance Garber, Duane Martin, and Luke Fisher.
Although still in the development stage, IndiThat will offer visitors a place to post and view events, business listings or reviews, upcoming musical performances or gallery openings.
"It's all local," Fisher said. "There's a lot going on here [in Westminster] that people don't know about."
While Steve Lowe's wife was recovering from knee surgery a few years ago, an interesting package arrived at the house.
Family friend Pinwheel Leister had baked "an enormous quantity of individually wrapped muffins," Lowe recalled, as a get well gift.
"They were super delicious and super convenient for breakfast or a snack," Lowe said. "I just started to think this is a completely marketable idea."
And the company MuffinBomb was born.
MuffinBomb offers an alternative to sending flowers or another gift, according to Lowe.
Instead of sending flowers, one can instead send a "MegaBomb" of 72 muffins, a "MiniBomb" of 36 muffins or a "Mortar" of six muffins.
Lowe said some orders are lined up for Christmas, but by winning the Biz Challenge he and Leister should be able to secure some commercial kitchen space to expand the business.
During a trip to the Eastern Shore, Bryan Zuber visited a trampoline park and noticed the diversity of people having a good time.
Shortly after that visit, Zuber began researching the possibility of owning a similar facility in Carroll. He now expects to open Stratosphere Trampoline Park in Eldersburg in the coming months.
The family-oriented facility for all ages will have open jump areas and arenas for dodgeball, basketball, volleyball, and fitness.
Winning the Carroll Biz Challenge would "go a long way" in helping pay off the startup costs, Zuber said.
But the experience, meeting other local business owners and learning resources available has been "invaluable," he said.
"Sometimes you think you are alone, but then you enter something like the Biz Challenge and all of a sudden you see there are so many like-minded people trying to start businesses," he said.
For more information on the Carroll Biz Challenge or to buy tickets to the live event, visit carrollbizchallenge.com.