Local business start-ups compete for winning prize money

Teen mental health organization among winners of ‘Shark Tank’-style competition


Under the bright lights in the theater at the University of Colorado, South Denver campus in Lone Tree Oct. 14, three students from ThunderRidge High School in Highlands Ranch stepped into the “shark tank.”

Melanie Zhou, Rohan Nipunge and Mia Hayden had formed a start-up they call Oasis to promote mental health and holistic living in high schools.They drove home their pitch in under three minutes and answered questions from celebrity judges about how to sustain and grow their organization.

By the end of the night, they had walked away with a $5,000 grant for their start-up and an additional $5,000 in vendor support.

Sunday evening’s “Shark Tank”-style competition was the culmination of a 26-hour weekend where participants fine-tuned their pitches and business models. The event was inspired by the TV show “Shark Tank,” where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to celebrity judges, who can choose to invest.

Founders of 10 start-up companies pitched their ideas, vying for one of three awards worth a total of $10,000 in grant money and vendor support.

Heidi Ganahl, founder of the Fight Back Foundation, led the effort to help the budding entrepreneurs gain exposure and investors.

“For most of us, we’re driven by the passion and we have experience in one area. We don’t maybe have experience in all the areas,” said Saralyn Ward, founder of The Mama Sagas, a blog and online video series to empower moms through crowdsourcing.

Each participant gave a three-minute pitch and answered questions about how they would grow their ideas. The judges were Josh Scott, founder of Craftsy; Pete Coors, chairman of Molson Coors Brewing Company; and Mark Randall, a community ambassador for the Denver Nuggets and former NBA player. Fight Back Foundation, an incubator working with entrepreneurs aspiring to do social good in the community, hosted the event. People from a range of ages and backgrounds competed.

The teens pitching Oasis ran away with the audience vote. Foster Together, a start-up to “play match-maker” between potential foster parents and foster kids, and Visible Network Labs, a data science company to give kids and adults a voice to express mental health challenges, founded by Danielle Varda, also took home grants of $5,000 and vendor support of $5,000.

Among the non-winners were an array of ideas from an app to block dangerous YouTube videos via crowdsourcing and a book educating kids on the values of ethics.

Ganahl founded Camp Bow Wow, a $100 million pet franchise. She was named one of Fortune Magazine’s Top 10 Most Promising Entrepreneurs and won the 2016 Colorado Brave Leader Award. Ganahl launched the Fight Back Foundation in 2014 after selling Camp Bow Wow.

“I thought, ‘Wow, I bet there’s a lot of people out there with great ideas that aren’t being paid attention to or don’t know how to start a business,’” Ganahl said. “And since I know how to start a business, I think that’s the best way I can help them.”

Shark Tank-style competition, Fight Back Foundation, Oasis, ThunderRidge high school, startups, Lone Tree, Colorado, Nick Puckett


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