Pitch-on-a-Train brings out Alaskan

Local Alaskan organizations are trying to promote entrepreneurship to diversify the economy. Last week, the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation hosted the second annual Pitch-on-a-Train competition. Five Alaskan start-ups tried to convince a panel of judges that their ideas could make money. 

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Traveling down the railroad tracks toward Whittier, five teams prepare to sell their ideas. They’re pitching business plans that could work in Alaska in a setting that doesn’t let them forget the uniqueness of where they live. Without Power Points and graphics they have to both maintain their balance on a moving train, and distract the panel of nine judges from the rugged scenery of Turnagain Arm. All but one of the judges is from the state.

SwipeAPI pitches to the panel of judges. Hillman/KSKA
SwipeAPI pitches to the panel of judges. Hillman/KSKA

Among the competitors is Duane Halverson. He’s pitching a product he developed for his hunting camp called Roving Blue. It’s a portable water purification system that uses ozone to kill pathogens. Ozonated water can be used as a disinfectant, too. He says the unit runs on batteries or solar power and can clean enough water for about 250 people.

“So you can see the applications worldwide are enormous. FEMA, hurricane, tornado disaster, anywhere where your water supply is interrupted. Galena, for example. There you go. So it’s something that can really contribute greatly to mankind,” he said.

But is it marketable? A good investment? Judge Terry Jones, who founded Travelocity, says these are the questions the judges are asking.

“A good pitch and a good idea are different because the pitch is more than the idea,” he said. “The pitch is about putting it to work. Remember, creativity is about thinking up new things. Innovation is about doing them.”

That was what the Anchorage Startup Weekend winners wanted to do — to turn the hard-to-grasp idea of Bitcoins into something people see as functional. Bitcoins are money that’s mined on the Internet using mathematical algorithms. At the moment, one Bitcoin is worth about $580. But Travis Krause says they aren’t easy to spend.

“Right now it takes over three days to take Bitcoin and turn it into US dollars so you can go buy a taco. Now we take that three day process and turn it into a three second card swipe.”

In the five days since the team formed, they created a credit card called SwipeAPI that can be used anywhere in the world to buy things with any type of cyber currency. And it already works.

“Well, I bought coffee with it this morning,” Krause said languidly. “And then I bought espresso with it later on this morning again.”

Krause’s team says that if Bitcoin was easy to use, then maybe the 99 percent of the population that doesn’t even really understand it, might start.

So did the judges think they had a great pitch? The best of the five? They announced the winners during lunch.

SwipeAPI pitches to the panel of judges. Hillman/KSKA
SwipeAPI pitches to the panel of judges. Hillman/KSKA

“Fifth place,” said the announcer, “is SwipeAPI.”

The team says they didn’t expect to win, but they didn’t expect to be last either. Team member Lance Ahern says it was still a positive experience.

“That experience of going through, putting our information together, getting out in front of the judges, presenting our idea. I think it’s good. We need to go through that.”

Ahern says Anchorage Bitcoin users are already paying to be part of the trial.

As the for the water treatment idea, it faired a bit better. They came in second. Judge Jones says their product could go somewhere with some work.

“I think the water cleaning system is awesome. I think they need marketing help to understand how to price it and where to go with it,” he said.

Other pitches included a time-share luxury jet and software to control drones for everything from fighting fires to cleaning gutters. But the ultimate winner? A tried and true idea — expanding a Juneau homemade ice cream business that features rhubarb sherbet to include an ice cream truck by the cruise ship docks.