Bixby & Co.’s chocolate bars embody all the hottest buzzwords in food: organic, gluten-free, Rain Forest Alliance certified and vegan-friendly. Now, the Rockland company has added another crucial component: money.
Bixby on Thursday won the $30,000 prize from the Gorham Savings Bank LaunchPad program that helps entrepreneurial ideas grow into viable companies.
In its second year, the LaunchPad program got 130 applications from start-ups from 60 towns across the state. Those entries got whittled to 12 semifinalists, which were featured on Gorham’s website where the public could vote for their favorite business idea. Nearly 9,000 votes were cast and five finalists were chosen to compete in a live event held at the University of Southern Maine.
The finalists each had seven minutes to pitch their business ideas and their need for funding to a panel of three judges. The finalists then fielded questions from the judges on everything from business strategies and target audiences to pricing and marketing plans.
Bixby beat four other finalists, which included a composting company, a sports analytics firm, a wallet and tote bag manufacturer and technology company designing map and guide applications for national parks and other outdoor destinations.
“Small businesses often come to us and ask how to get their ideas funded. LaunchPad helps fill in the gaps and serve as a bridge between the entrepreneurial community and the more traditional ways of finding capital,” said Chris Emmons, president and chief executive officer of Gorham Savings Bank. “There’s a great network in Maine to support the entrepreneurial community. It’s really nice for us to be involved in that network and be a resource for small business owners.”
The cash prize will help Bixby’s founder, Kate McAleer, turn the company she started in her mother’s kitchen two years ago into a fast-growing business. McAleer plans to purchase equipment for more efficient refrigeration and melting tanks to ensure a continuous flow of chocolate.
While Bixby’s bars have been available in some Whole Foods markets, as well as regional grocery stores, spas and health food stores in New England, McAleer said she recently forged an agreement with a national natural food distributor that wants to sell the product across the country.
“This is critical. We have the opportunity to launch a Maine-made product in national, natural food channels for chocolate,” McAleer said in her pitch to judges.
In additional to buying equipment, McAleer also hopes to use the prize money to expand two part-time positions into full-time employees. She envisions her chocolate factory in Rockland will someday offer tours and a tasting room.
“I’m feeling thrilled and excited. It’s a dream come true. I’m thrilled about what I’m able to do now,” McAleer, 26, said.
Last year’s winner was Pika Energy, which makes personal wind turbines for residences. The firm used the money to help move out of the basement of co-founder Ben Polito’s basement into a larger facility in Westbrook.
“The LaunchPad program came to us at a perfect time,” Polito told the crowd of about 300 people at the LaunchPad event. “There were four of us in my basement and it was getting pretty darn crowded. Now, we have nine people and a proven core technology.”
When asked why Bixby stood out against its rivals, the judges spoke about McAleer’s passion, drive and immediate need for the funds.
“The thing that stood out was that this money will immediately go to use. This company is not going anywhere but up,” said Michelle Neujahr, director of the entrepreneurial center at Southern Maine Community College.
Other finalists said the LaunchPad program helped them hone their pitching skills and network with potential investors and mentors.
“The state of Maine is really unique in helping young companies connect with a lot of amazing people in a short time to go from an idea to a viable entity,” said Dan Kerluke, co-founder and chief executive of Double Blue Sports Analytics, one of the finalists. “LaunchPad is great exposure and a way to network. I’d recommend it to anyone trying to start a company and develop a dream.”
Jessica Hall may be reached at 791-6316 or at: