Throughout Thursday night’s The Innovators gala, alumni of the Pipeline fellowship teased that their individual classes were the best in the entrepreneur network’s 11-year history. Newcomer to the stage Evan Luxon, however, made a case for the tight-knit 2017 fellows based on the group’s perseverance.
“We’re a small, but mighty class,” said Luxon, winner of Pipeline’s Innovator of the Year title and co-founder of Omaha-based medical tech firm Esculon.
Seven entrepreneurs from the fellowship cohort competed Thursday for the night’s headline award. The group began with 12 fellows, a number that narrowed to eight through the course of Pipeline’s four-module, year-long program. The eighth member of the class was unable to participate in the final stage of the competition because of a family emergency.
“This year was one of the closest margins among the finalists, the seven companies — I think you are the ‘Magnificent Seven,'” said Chris Shipley, Pipeline national advisor.
In addition to Luxon, who also was honored for best pitch, those competing Thursday included Austin Barone, Just Play Sports Solutions, Kansas City; Lei Shi, UAVradars, Lawrence; Dan Curran, PowerPost, St. Louis; Joe Fischer, Greetabl, St. Louis; Beth Handrigan, Lean Media, St. Louis; and Derek Weber, goBRANDgo!, St. Louis.
Innovator of the Year is determined by a composite score for each fellow that takes into account their performance throughout the program, their retooled business plans and their pitches Thursday in front of an international panel of judges.
“That’s a lot of input, but I know as fellows, we appreciate that Pipeline lets so many components make up this award,” said Michelle Faits, the 2016 Innovator of the Year winner and founder of St. Louis-based Pro-Arc Diagnostics. “We all vie for it — friendly competition, yes — but we are competitive and want to know that the process is so thoughtful.”
Thursday’s judges called the 2017 class impressive in its members’ preparation, focus and the diversity of the firms represented.
“What I really liked is that [I’ve been] all over the country looking at entrepreneurs, they were all in one industry or one stage. But here, we had entrepreneurs from a bunch of different industries and stages,” said presentation judge Julie Lenzer, of UM Ventures, College Park, Maryland. “They were all working together and it was really special.”
That camaraderie was memorable for Luxon, as well.
“For me, the biggest thing I’ve gotten out of this year was actually the fellowship within our cohort,” he told The Innovators crowd after accepting his award. “Just having a bunch of brilliant minds in a room, able to pick you apart, is very humbling, but also very helpful and pretty rare.”
Other Pipeline honors awarded Thursday included:
- Member Growth Award — Alfred Botchway, Xenometrics LLC, Kansas City, and Paul Jarrett, Bulu Box, Lincoln
- Member Inspiration Award — Kim Gandy, Play-it Health, Kansas City
- Entrepreneurial Leadership Award — Nebraska Pipeline Sponsors (the University of Nebraska, Linseed Capital, Prairie Ventures, and Nelnet)
Co-hosts of The Innovators, Blake Lawrence and Will Compton, both frequent Pipeline event personalities and former University of Nebraska-Lincoln football players, noted a $2 million grant to Pipeline from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation over four years — an amount they said would be matched by the organization’s sponsors. The gift will be the third Pipeline grant from Kauffman, according to the presenters.
“Pipeline works to ensure our Midwest entrepreneurs have a national network and a global reach,” said Wendy Guillies, President and CEO of the Kauffman Foundation.“The Innovators event allows the community to meet with the very individuals who are working so hard to ensure we continue to lead from the Middle. We are extremely proud to be a part of it.”
The growth and leadership of Pipeline entrepreneurs and partners has been incredible, said Joni Cobb, president and CEO of Pipeline.
“We hope that these entrepreneurs and leaders — and our night celebrating their work — inspires new generations of entrepreneurs, investors, and advocates to continue our entrepreneurial growth in the Midwest,” Cobb said.