For rural entrepreneurs, one conversation can be the difference between struggle and success. One connection, one pitch — when those chances are often limited by geography — can be a springboard to the next level of growth and possibility.
That’s why, for the third year running, the Center on Rural Innovation brought together exciting, early-stage tech startups from across the country for its annual Small Towns, Big Ideas virtual pitch event.
A panel of volunteer judges assessed each of the pitching companies based upon a variety of criteria, including the product, business model, traction, and narrative. Bearapy Bookshelf, a recruiting platform based in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, captured the $10,000 prize with founder Kanesha Barnes-Adams’ pitch for a platform offering a suite of services — books and other tools to build emotional connection, as well as livestreams led by licensed therapists — to help young children process trauma.
Meet the startups from the third annual Small Towns, Big Ideas virtual pitch event
The 10 participating startups spanned a variety of sectors and all hailed from one of the 38 communities served by the Rural Innovation Network. You can see their pitches and learn more about each of them below:
After two previous startups in the same space, Nicole Sdao has brought Altruize to market with the idea of reinventing how volunteers and institutions track and validate volunteers’ time. With the help of her technologist co-founder, Sdao’s data management platform, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company offers a traveling digital portfolio that streamlines the documentation and validation process for volunteers — from students, to employees, to those in the justice system — and the organizations who engage with them.
An educator and author, Kanesha Barnes-Adams turned her own life experience and expertise into a unique startup, Bearapy Bookshelf, that offers a suite of services to parents and schools to help them support young children dealing with trauma. Through a combination of resources that create emotional connection and teach emotional resilience, as well as livestream sessions taught by licensed therapists. In two years, Bearapy Bookshelf has worked with over 65 schools and impacted close to 20,000 students.
With GeekPack, founder and CEO Julia Taylor, a self-taught coder, is using what she learned from her own tech-skill-building journey to create a platform that incorporates community support into its effort to close the digital skills gap affecting millions of women — and empower them on a path to economic mobility. The company’s first product, WProckstar, focused on training customers on skills they would need to start their own business, and its GeekPack Collective is a membership program that offers on-demand training, coaching, and community. Most recently, GeekPack has bolstered its offerings with a B2B service line, and aims to help 1 million women get into tech by 2030.
Health For Mankind
Dr. Uchenna Onyeachom, a physician originally from Nigeria, has developed Health For Mankind to help minorities and people from underserved populations better manage their diabetes in a personalized and cost-effective way. His startup solution addresses the unique challenges facing those communities — healthcare access and quality; language barriers; socioeconomic factors; and cultural and dietary factors — via an app Diabimetrics, that uses a proprietary AI algorithm to track and analyze patients’ relevant medical data to develop customized treatment plans.
How do we solve the loneliness epidemic and lack of human connection online? Vermont-based entrepreneur Darren Mark’s latest startup, hūmNET, was created with that “connection disconnection” — and the negative health outcomes associated with it — top of mind. With connection events called “humns,” which feature a harmonic sound and haptic vibration, Mark’s mobile app seeks to encourage connection and empathy among users based on specific feelings and common causes.
Applying his biomedical background and Ph.D.-level expertise in a slightly different realm, Ken James is building NEK Biosciences around a product intended to help some of his rural Vermont neighbors — dairy cows — heal faster from everyday hoof issues. The product his company has developed, a collagen wound gel called CorioGraft, is based on medical technology he previously developed that aided healing in humans, and has the potential to change the way farmers can alleviate cows’ pressure sores that hamper their diet and milk production.
Built by a pair of co-founders, DeAndre Mason and Joseph Gagnon II, who previously worked in the insurance industry, SAB Co. offers a streamlined, hands-off solution to eliminate the complex issues that arise in employee benefits administration. Their SAB VANTAGE software uses a proprietary algorithm that can customize solutions for customers and offer analytics for brokers and companies — completing in seconds a process that can routinely take hours, and ensure accurate paycheck deductions.
Susan Langer didn’t just build and sell her financial tech startup, Spave, to a credit union in 2021 — she bought it back this year in order to re-release an updated version and realize its full market potential by taking it to the masses. Developed as a “financial wholeness” app that helps inspire and streamline users’ spending, giving, and saving in one place, Langer and her team have targeted their solution to meet the needs of tech-savvy adults in their 20s, 30s, and 40s — Millennials — who crave simplicity and have given more than $30 billion to charity since 2017.
Zachary Hite and his co-founder, Broc Crandall, launched their startup, Stocked, in 2021 looking to improve the experience of vacationers who spend an estimated $7 billion on groceries each year. An ecommerce platform designed for vacationers, and a value-add for property managers, Stocked can get groceries in the fridge before short-term renters arrive at their destination — especially in rural areas where home-delivery solutions like Instacart aren’t available.
When his car was towed while he was out on a date, turning a great night into an embarrassing memory, Jack Oppenheim had a thought — ”There has to be a better way to find my car” — that turned into an idea that’s now known as Tow Ninja. His two-sided marketplace offers a solution to towing companies’ dated operations processes and drivers’ challenges locating their automobile. The ease-of-use results in a system that allows Oppenheim to onboard a company in an hour, and by focusing on college towns can serve an audience full of early tech-adopters.
Everyone benefits when entrepreneurs have support
CORI’s second annual pitch event was made possible by the support of our sponsors — Venable, Robert and Jeanette Delves, Nick Greenfield, and Colin and Tiffany Polidor — as well as the time and expertise of our judges: Alex Benik, Jay Bockhaus, Chloe Kinderman, Julie Penner, and Jamie Rodota.
And anyone interested in getting involved with the next generation of small-town tech startups should consider joining our Rural Innovation Mentor Network — we are always seeking individuals with valuable experience to join the ranks and make a difference. You can sign up directly here, or get in touch if you have any questions about the program.
At the Center on Rural Innovation, we are working with rural communities across the country to help position them to thrive in the 21st-century tech economy. To learn more about our work in this space, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.