50 startups go to bat (and one walks home with cash) in the first-ever PitchfestNW

Poda Foods founders Yesenia Gallardo and and Kenny Cloft (center) accept their PitchfestNW grand prize from Portland Development Commission's Jared Wiener (right) Rick Stella/Digital Trends
What could be more terrifying than subjecting your fledgling startup idea to the scrutiny of a panel of ice-blooded venture capitalists? Doing it on stage, in front of other entrepreneurs hungry for the same money.

Yet 50 eager startups stepped up to the plate at the much-anticipated debut of PitchfestNW, the entrepreneurial arm of Portland’s annual TechfestNW festival. Pitting 50 different startups from the United States, Europe, and Canada against each other, Pitchfest gave these exclusive companies the tremendous opportunity to quickly pitch their business plans to a panel of experienced venture capitalists. Think of it like a marathon episode of ABC’s Shark Tank with a lot less Mark Cuban — in fact, no Mark Cuban.

Over the course of the two-day conference, each startup applicant had five minutes to essentially sell their companies to seasoned venture capitalists like Maveron investor Anarghya Vardhana and Horan Mediatech Advisors venture capitalist Peter Horan. In addition to getting a few minutes of valuable facetime with a who’s who of VCs, the 50 startups were vying for PitchfestNW’s ultimate prize: a one-hour consultation with a VC, exclusive media coverage, a strategic consulation meeting with the AKQA advertising agency, a stay at a three-bedroom vacation home of their choosing, $120,000 in no-strings-attached cloud credits from IBM’s Global Entrepreneur Program, plus $2,016 in cash to commemorate the year.

After a grueling first round for both the presenters and judges, just five startups were selected to square off during Day 2’s PitchfestNW finals. The judging panel also narrowed to just five panelists: Elevate Capital’s Nitin Rai, Voyager’s Diane Fraiman, Portland Seed Fund’s Angela Jackson, Phoenix Venture Partners’ Zach Jonasson, and Madrona’s Tim Porter.

So who made the cut? Before we reveal the winner, here are the five startups from five wildly different industries, and a little about each of their pitches.


Rick Stella/Digital Trends

TripGrid co-founder Jake Hoskins explained how his app can simplify travel booking for small to mid-size businesses. Instead of fumbling through email chains or handfuls of website tabs, TripGrid allows businesses to centralize each step of the planning process into one application. Booking flights and hotels, building itineraries, and keeping in touch with traveling employees is all done via easily organizable cards. The employee even has the ability to peek at their complete itinerary via a clearly laid out smartphone application. Hoskins’ goal in the first year is to have roughly 166 small to mid-size businesses (those with 25 to 500 employees) using TripGrid for all their travel needs.

StandTall LLC

StandTall LLC
Rick Stella/Digital Trends

Launched by three high school students, StandTall is a company that hopes to bring the standing desk phenomenon to the classroom. In an effort to help improve the health and learning efficiency of students who potentially sit upwards of 10 hours per day, StandTall has developed an inexpensive, lightweight standing desk module capable of converting typical desks to standing desks in a matter of seconds.

Standing in front of the Pitchfest NW judges, Catlin Gabel junior Angela Liu (StandTall’s COO) said the modules would cost schools just $50 per unit, which is a far cry from the hundreds — and sometimes thousands — of dollars standard lifting desks often cost. Citing no direct competition and an intent to go after the financially flexible private-school sector first, the 17-year-old Liu appeared incredibly confident not just in her pitch delivery, but in the future success of StandTall.


Rick Stella/Digital Trends

Like Google Maps for indoor navigation, Cartogram is an indoor location service for businesses boasting large venues. Founder and CEO Will Clausen said his company’s next step is to go after businesses and show them exactly how they can help customers find specific products in their stores. Cartogram can continuously update a businesses indoor map, because as Clausen explained, an out of date map would be “completely useless.”

During his pitch, Clausen also detailed a few of the unique features native to Cartogram like multi-venue wayfinding, Another feature, NearView, changes a user’s ads based on their personal data, and Indoor Delivery allows someone to have products and services delivered to them while actually inside one of the venues supported by the app. Despite its startup status, Clausen did say the Sacramento Kings have decided to use Cartogram in their new stadium, which is no doubt a massive win for the company.

Chroma Fund

Rick Stella/Digital Trends

As Chroma Fund CEO Marcus Estes took to the PitchfestNW stage, he shared a bit of investment information much of the audience had likely never heard of. As of May 16, 2016, people investing into a 401k can legally invest in privately held companies for the first time. In light of this, Chroma Fund has set out to help create a new stock market for the small business economy. Basically, the company helps connect people with resources (and brokers) that will help them make smart local investments.

Once the new regulations kick in, anyone investing into a retirement account has the ability to invest up to $2,000 into local businesses. If they choose to work with Chroma Fund, the startup will automatically diversify that money over many vetted investment strategies. So why go local? Instead of funneling money into Wall Street, Estes says investing into one’s local economy can help change the type of access to capital in the U.S. If this sounds confusing, Estes’ site Chroma.Fund plans to teach people about the new small business economy it’s planning.

Poda Foods

Poda Foods
Rick Stella/Digital Trends

Poda Foods is a Portland, Oregon-based startup that raises and harvests crickets to create a cricket-based protein powder. Yes, you read that correctly, a cricket-based protein powder.

While certainly odd, Poda Foods co-founder and CEO Yesenia Gallardo shared with the PitchfestNW judges just how beneficial crickets are to the food industry. After citing the many downsides of the meat industry — like methane production and excessive water consumption — Gallardo pointed to crickets as a reasonable solution. Not only do they require little food to stay alive, but crickets quickly convert their food into mass, allowing them to boast a higher protein value than chicken, eggs, salmon, or beef jerky.

We know what you’re thinking, but how does it taste? According to Gallardo, crickets are delicious. Tasting slightly nutty, she said many people believe crickets to almost have a dark toast-like flavor. If you’d believe it, many food manufacturers already use cricket protein to produce chips, bars, and even cookies. To Poda Foods’ credit, it’s currently the only supplier of cricket protein on the West Coast, but due to rising demand, it’s looking to increase its warehouse space and needs capital for better machinery — hence the PitchfestNW showing.

And the winner is…

After deliberating for nearly an hour, the five judges emerged from backstage with an overall winner: Yesenia Gallardo’s Poda Foods.

Along with co-founder and COO Kenny Cloft, Gallardo (grinning from ear-to-ear) accepted the victor’s spoils as PitchfestNW’s inaugural grand prize winner. Now $120,000 richer — in IBM Global Entrepreneur Program cloud credits, that is — and promised an hour with a venture capitalist, Gallardo and Cloft looked every bit the part of humble winners.

“It’s incredible to see support like this in a tech-heavy place like Portland,” Cloft tells Digital Trends. “Getting recognition in an area where you don’t expect it is what’s really great about this competition.”

Poda Foods
Yesenia Gallardo and Kenny Cloft Rick Stella/Digital Trends

According to Gallardo, the inspiration to create Poda Foods came from her mother. While visiting Oaxaca, Mexico one summer, Gallardo recalls eating small grasshoppers called chapulines and says she was immediately drawn to their inherent nutritional benefits. After seeing the kind of health benefits her mother enjoyed by eating chapulines, Gallardo thought extensive research on eating insects would be a perfect project to undertake during her time at Yale.

“My mother ate them to help with her anemia and I thought ‘why not bring this idea back to Yale?'” Gallardo explains. “I partnered with Kenny and we decided to concentrate on manufacturing cricket protein. From there, Poda Foods was born.”

So what’s next for Gallardo, Cloft, and Poda Foods?

With demand for cricket protein continuing to rise, a bigger production facility and superior machinery is the first priority. Cloft acknowledges that while the edible insect business is still in its infancy, it’s a “growing industry” and the company is keenly focused on meeting the increasing demand. Now, with a PitchfestNW victory under their belts and the sky seemingly the limit, Poda Foods is poised to bring its cricket protein powder to the masses.


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