Contest is looking for Dalton's next big business idea, applications underway

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Felicia Smith discusses Critterbox, a device invented by herself and her husband Brandon that allows reptile owners to remotely feed their pets. The couple won the 2019 PitchDIA competition with the idea.

After an almost three-year hiatus, the organizers of the PitchDIA (Dalton Innovation Accelerator) contest are once again looking for Greater Dalton's best new business idea, and they are taking applications.

"We are very excited that we have finalized the date and the location and that we have opened up the application process," said Lauren Holverson, executive director of the Dalton Innovation Accelerator, a business incubator housed in 1,800 square feet of office space in the Landmark Building in downtown Dalton.

The DIA provides startup firms and small nonprofit organizations with office space, mentorship and support services.

"The contest will be May 17. That's a Tuesday," Holverson said. "And it will be taking place at the Wink Theatre, in downtown Dalton. It will be that evening. It will include adult entrepreneurs as well as (a separate contest for) k-12 entrepreneurs from both Dalton Public Schools and Whitfield County Schools."

The event will start at 5:30 p.m. and the pitches will start at 6:15.

Entrepreneurs who think they have Dalton's next big business idea can apply at daltoninnovationaccelerator.com. Click on "Pitch Competitions." The deadline for applications is Jan. 24.

The last PitchDIA contest was in 2019. The contest was not held in 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mayor David Pennington said it's a "positive for the community" to see the contest return.

"Entrepreneurs are the ones who create new business and create new jobs," he said.

The contest is based on the popular television show "Shark Tank"; entrepreneurs have the opportunity to pitch their ideas to business leaders who choose the winner.

Holverson said the judges will include Marilyn Helms, dean of Dalton State College's C. Lamar and Ann Wright School of Business, and Kate Fuller, president of Atticus Impact Investing in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee.

For the adult entrepreneurs, Holverson said a committee that consists of her, Dorsett Industries President Bryan Macon and local business leaders will review the applications after the deadline has closed.

"We will interview each of the applicants and they will pitch their ideas to us," she said. "We will determine the individuals who will move forward after that. The ones who are selected to move forward will be connected with a mentor towards the end of February. Those mentors will meet with their entrepreneur a minimum of once a week for an hour. They will coach them to get them ready to pitch their ideas as well as to get their business plan together if they don't already have one."

Holverson said the mentors will be "leaders in our community, professionals from local industries including Shaw Industries and people who provide services to entrepreneurs."

She said the process for the k-12 students will be a little bit different.

"Students from Dalton Public Schools will go through an initial judging in February to determine which teams will move forward," she said. "We will be doing something similar with Whitfield County Schools, but we haven't determined the exact process yet."

The students will then develop prototypes of their product.

"We are going after grants and donations to assist them and cover the costs of developing their prototypes," she said. "Those students will then submit a video discussing their idea, their target market, how they would go about selling that. They will submit that video online and we are putting together a panel of judges to view those and select the finalists to move forward to the event on May 17."

Tripp Phillips, then a seventh-grade student at Dalton Middle School, won the inaugural PitchDIA contest in 2018. Some 60 entrepreneurs from Dalton and the surrounding area pitched their ideas to a group of investors and business experts. Phillips won for his Le-Glue product, a non-permanent glue that holds Legos and other building blocks together without damaging them.

Phillips later that year went on "Shark Tank" and reached a deal with investor Kevin O'Leary to buy into his company.

Critterbox, an automated live bait feeding process marketed toward reptile owners that comes with a mobile app allowing owners to feed their pets from anywhere, won the second edition of the contest in 2019.

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