Group Sees Jackson as Future Silicon Valley of the Rockies

Aug 23, 2013

Credit Rebecca Huntington

A new group is convinced that, with a little coaching, Jackson Hole can become the Silicon Valley of the Rockies. In fact, this ad hoc group has even taken the name Silicon Couloir. (Coo-LAR) They're convinced that within the state the investors exist to help grow more startup businesses. But what's lacking is a venue for investors and entrepreneurs to meet. The possible solution is known as Pitch Day.   

(Ambient: My name is John Pansewicz, and I'm a co-founder of My name is Matthew Gawronski, I'm with Thorium Manufactured Reactors, and we build nuclear power plants. Landon Weidenman and I pitched an artificial intelligence health management system.)

REBECCA HUNTINGTON: In total, seven entrepreneurs appeared at the invitation-only pitch day in an effort to attract investors. Silicon Couloir is a diverse group with experience ranging from Wall Street to Silicon Valley. Everyone is seated inside a fancy barn, built for events not horses, at the exclusive Shooting Star Golf Club in Teton Village. Just getting in the door is a coup. Todd Graus has been working for three years on his patented device that he calls the BioPac'r. 

TODD GRAUS: Think about this, homeowners pay to seed a crop. And then they pay to maintain a crop. And then they pay to harvest a crop. And then it's dumped on the ground to waste. 

HUNTINGTON: Graus says his machine can turn lawn leftovers into feed for cows, pigs, chickens and other livestock. And that means turning grass into cash. But to even get in the door, Graus had to undergo a competitive application process. Once selected, he then faced rigorous rounds of coaching to polish his business plan and presentation style. 

TODD GRAUS: They were brutally honest when I would bring in and talk about my business plan, or my slides or my presentation. I mean, if it stunk they told me it stunk.

HUNTINGTON: That kind of feedback was hard to hear. 

GRAUS: The first time I came away, I was really, really beat down. I was actually angry because I couldn't believe they tore me apart the way they did. But I went back to the drawing board and took their suggestions and just continued to make it better and better and better and here I am today.

HUNTINGTON: Today, his company is ready to launch as soon as he gets the capital. Pitch Day feels a little like reality TV. The pitchers stand at a podium with a screen behind them displaying slides of their business plan. They face a room full of potential investors and a panel of experts, who scribble notes and ask questions.

HUNTINGTON: Eric Green is pitching his Dust Cutter Beverage Company, which sells bottled lemonade. The idea comes from his family's Jackson Hole dude ranch days when guests would return from trail rides and 'cut the dust' with a glass of homemade lemonade. 

ERIC GREEN: We've already completed two rounds of financing, totaling $400,000. And we need to raise $1 million to fund further expansion.

HUNTINGTON: The panelists grill Green with questions ranging from how this could become a national brand, opportunities to build partnerships and business margins. The goal is to make the business plan more attractive and more viable. Panelist JJ Healy, a former Vice President of Corporate Development at Yahoo! and a partner in a venture capital firm says that, in Wyoming, a key barrier to launching start-up businesses is geography. 

HEALY: It's a lack of connection. I live part-time here, and part-time in San Francisco. And in Silicon Valley, the connections between entrepreneurs, lawyers, venture guys, education is all within miles. Here it's within the state. So you really have to get the right people in the right room, to be able to know what's going on and to be able to know what the opportunities are in the state. 

HUNTINGON: Last year, six companies made pitches. Venture capitalist Bob Grady invested in one of those companies, and he’s interested again this year. 

GRADY: I'm actually going to go visit three or four of the companies right now.

HUNTINGTON: Grady says the state lacks venture capitalists and the other business expertise it takes to foster new businesses. But that’s beginning to change.

GRADY: But I think it's growing in places like Jackson, places like Laramie and Cheyenne.

HUNTINGTON: Indeed, Story Clark, founder of a travel app that launched on iTunes last year, says she's looking for more than just capital at Pitch Day.

CLARK: I could use some really, really smart guys who are watching their money, or women who are watching their money and make sure it's spent in the best possible way. I've got a great team, but I need to grow it, much greater than it is currently.

HUNTINGTON: And that's where Silicon Couloir comes in. The group hopes to cultivate the kind of business environment in Jackson Hole that will help entrepreneurs like Clark grow their companies. Although they're just getting started, Silicon Couloir members say events like Pitch Day are already making a difference. One company that secured investors at Pitch Day last year, reported increasing sales from $12,000 to $60,000 in a year. They also got an experienced business leader to join their board and have secured two more years of funding to keep growing.

In addition to Pitch Day, the group offers monthly gatherings, online directories and intensive training through a new Start-Up Institute to nurture entrepreneurs and small businesses year-round.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I'm Rebecca Huntington in Jackson