The first thing Bethany Deshpande did after her company - Canadian dairy processing product maker SomaDetect - won the $1 million grand prize in the 43North business plan competition Thursday night was call her father.
After all, it was her father's patented invention, which uses light-scattering technology to help dairy farmers detect impurities in their milk or sickness in their cows, that is the backbone of SomaDetect's fledgling business.
"He was excited," Deshpande said after speaking with her father, Satish, minutes after SomaDetect beat out 15 other startups to win top prize in the daylong competition.
Minutes before, Deshpande, her voice cracking with emotion, stood on the Shea's Performing Arts Center stage and publicly thanked her father.
"He's always supported me," she said.
And it was SomaDetect, with Deshpande as CEO, that 43North's judges decided merited the most financial support from the $5 million business plan contest.
"They were so buttoned up. The way they articulated the value proposition of why it was good for people, why it was good for cows," said one of the contest's judges, David Jakubowski, director of publisher solutions at Facebook. "She has the potential to be the biggest CEO in dairy."
Behind SomaDetect is a $2,000 device that attaches to the milking equipment used by dairy farmers. Its sensors screen the milk, allowing farmers to identify impurities or deficiencies in the milk early on -- which can be a sign that a cow is fighting an illness. The early warning allows them to take steps to keep a problem from spreading, or figure out how to solve it immediately, rather than relying on periodic lab tests that usually are done every few weeks.
The 43North winnings will allow SomaDetect to launch a pilot program to measure how well its device works next March. About 50 New York dairy farmers have signed letters to potentially purchase the device and participate in the pilot, although Deshpande said it probably would start with 10 farmers and expand from there.
If the trial goes well, she hopes to start selling the devices commercially in May.
Because the 43North prize comes with a condition that all winners move a substantial portion of their business to Buffalo for at least one year, Deshpande said SomaDetect, which was launched in Fredericton, New Brunswick, hopes to hire about 25 people next year, ranging from engineers and developers to technicians and support staff. If SomaDetect succeeds in building its sales, it could hire another 35 in 2019.
"It makes a lot of sense for our company to be situated in Buffalo," she said, noting that New York has more than 1 million dairy cattle. "The dairy industry doesn't sit in Atlantic Canada. It sits in New York."
The contest's runner-up, Squire, won a $650,000 prize.
Squire, a New York City company, is described as the "OpenTable for barber shops." Rather than waiting in line for a haircut, the Squire app allows users to book – and pay for – haircuts in advance at participating barbershops. The service is available in more than 20 cities. Its only Buffalo site is Buffalo Barber Co.
Qidni Labs won $550,000 by finishing third.
Qidni Labs, a San Francisco company, is developing a palm-sized device that can be used to treat patients with kidney failure. The device would allow patients to have access to treatment at all times, unlike dialysis, which requires a lengthy trip to a treatment center. Qidni, which was launched in Ontario, participated in the San Francisco-based IndieBio accelerator for biotech startups and raised $250,000 in seed funding from investors, as well as funding from investment firm SOSV.
43North organizers tweaked the contest's format this year in an attempt to give the finals more of a “Shark Tank” feel and add both tension and drama to the competition’s finale.
With $5 million in funding, the contest is a small, but potentially powerful, part of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development plan. By helping to nurture fledgling businesses, organizers hope the winners will be able to turn their ideas into viable commercial products and create profitable businesses that will create jobs in the Buffalo Niagara region.
"We are building an inclusive culture of entrepreneurism," said John Gavigan, the contest's executive director. "Tonight is not just about 43North, but a celebration of innovation and entrepreneurship in Buffalo."
Each of the eight prize winners, in addition to cash prizes, will receive rent-free space in the 43North incubator on Ellicott Street, as well as help from mentors and eligibility for tax-free benefits available under the state’s Start-Up NY program. In return, the contest gets a 5 percent ownership stake in each business.
Five other companies won $500,000 prizes:
- Femi Secrets: an Atlanta-based company that makes the Pretty Panty, a line of disposable feminine protection undergarments, that are available at stores like Walmart and Target, along with online sites including Amazon.com. The company has said that its current overseas manufacturer can’t keep up with demand and it is interested in shifting production to the United States and possibly Buffalo.
- Kangarootime: a Long Beach, Calif., company that has developed a software suite for childcare centers, schools and camps handles tasks such as payments, billing, scheduling and attendance. It allows parents to check their children in and out of the center, pay tuition electronically, view and share photos, complete student paperwork and contact teachers. Kangarootime has completed three rounds of fundraising, including a round that closed in July.
- Burner Fitness: The only one of three Buffalo-based companies to survive the cut from 16 to 10, Burner Fitness is building a platform that allows consumers to access video training sessions from top fitness professionals and wellness coaches. The company had been located in the Silicon Valley in California but moved to Buffalo because of its lower labor costs.
- Tara.AI: a San Jose, Calif., company whose name stands for Talent Acquisition and Recruiting Automation. The company bills itself as a new way to outsource software development work, from a website to a new app, using a stable of 15,000 software development contractors.
- Suncayr: a Kitchener, Ont., company that makes stickers that turn purple to alert sunscreen users to when their sunscreen no longer is providing protection against ultraviolet light. Suncayr has raised more than $600,000 in grant funding.
Two of the 10 finalists, Moving Analytics and Vivacelle Bio, didn't win any money.
Two local startups, Rachel's Remedies and Cellular Preservation Technologies, were ousted before the final round of pitches began Thursday.