Fluid Farms, an aquaponic produce grower and tilapia fishery, out-pitched the competition Tuesday night to win Gorham Savings Bank’s annual LaunchPad competition and its $50,000 prize.

Now in its fourth year, LaunchPad is designed to help fund the growth of one promising, early-stage Maine business each year. Five companies were chosen from a pool of 179 applicants from 70 Maine cities and towns to compete in Tuesday’s final round, a live business-pitch competition before a panel of judges at the University of Southern Maine’s Hannaford Hall in Portland.

The five finalists were Fluid Farms, Blue Ox Malthouse, Garbage to Garden, Good To-Go and UniteGPS. The bank has said that all five were chosen because of their focus on “sustainability and convenience in a busy world.”

In front of an audience of more than 200, an independent panel of judges listened to the five seven-minute pitches, asked follow-up questions and provided feedback to each competitor. This year’s judges were WEX Inc. President and CEO Melissa Smith, Winxnet CEO and co-founder Chris Claudio, and Michelle Neujahr, the director of Southern Maine Community College’s Entrepreneurial Center.

In general, the judges wanted to know how each company would use the $50,000, and what hurdles were expected as the company grows.

Fluid Farms in Portland grows organic greens and freshwater tilapia (striped bass), and operates the state’s only Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association-certified organic aquaponic greenhouse.

Company founder Tyler Gaudet told the panel that the company is doing well and that customers are happy with its products, but that high energy costs are holding it back from scaling to the size at which it could supply large distributors such as Sysco and Whole Foods.

Talking over the intermittent crackle of a malfunctioning public-address system, Gaudet made an impassioned plea for the $50,000, which he said would enable the company to buy a more energy-efficient heating system for its greenhouse.

“The No. 1 hurdle to year-round agriculture is high energy costs,” he said.

Gaudet enticed the judges repeatedly with the notion that, if successful, Fluid Farms could become a year-round provider of fresh strawberries in Maine.

“I think you had me at fresh strawberries in Maine in winter,” Neujahr told Gaudet.

Fluid Farms wasn’t the only winner Tuesday night.

Portland-based Garbage to Garden, a composting business that makes it easier for residents, schools and businesses to divert their food scraps from landfills, won the audience award based on online voting. The prize was $10,000 worth of consulting services from business consulting firm Provoke, web developer iBec Creative, public relations firm CP Inc. and the Creative Imaging design firm.

Garbage to Garden founder Tyler Frank, making his second appearance at LaunchPad’s pitch competition, won the audience over with his enthusiastic pitch for the business, which allows each customer to leave a bucket of scraps at the curbside each week to be exchanged for a fresh, clean one and, if requested, a bag of compost.

“We’re the only composting program to overcome the ‘ick’ factor by providing fresh containers every week,” Frank said.

The other finalists in Tuesday night’s competition were Blue Ox Malthouse of Lisbon Falls, which turns raw grain from local farms into malt used by craft breweries; Good To-Go of Kittery, which offers a line of all-natural, dehydrated gourmet meals catering to hikers and campers; and UniteGPS of Portland, whose mobile app, CrossWalk, solves the problems of parents and students not knowing exactly when the bus will arrive each day.

Chris Emmons, president and CEO of Gorham Savings Bank, said the judges reported having a difficult time choosing a winner this year because of the high quality of all five competitors. He said the bank is committed to helping small businesses in Maine grow.

“It’s so important to support the entrepreneurial community,” Emmons said. “We’re very proud of that.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.