Banza Wins Project Startup Live’s Detroit Pitch Competition

The national spotlight was shining on Detroit’s entrepreneurial ecosystem yesterday as A&E and the crowdfunding website RocketHub were in town for Project Startup Live, a series of entrepreneurship forums held across the country in partnership with Comcast Business. The series began in Wasatch Front, UT, on May 20 before stopping in the Motor City this week, and a third event will be held in Boston on June 10. Project Startup is a new A&E series connecting aspiring entrepreneurs with RocketHub’s online crowdfunding community in order to get businesses launched.

As part of Project Startup Live, which was held at the TechTown incubator, WDIV news anchor Rhonda Walker moderated a panel discussion about starting and sustaining a small business featuring Libby O’Connell, A&E’s senior vice president of corporate outreach; RocketHub co-founder Brian Meece; Paula Sorrell, vice-president of entrepreneurship and innovation at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation; and Comcast’s Michelle Pluskota sat in on a panel discussion about starting and sustaining small businesses.

Three local startups also participated in a pitch contest for a $5,000 grand prize or two $2,500 runner-up prizes. First up was Social Sushi, a restaurant set to open this summer in a shipping container in Corktown’s Roosevelt Park. Next was Swaddle-Mi-Billi, which makes a wearable medical device used to treat jaundiced babies; the company started as a Michigan State University engineering class project. Last up was Banza, which makes a gluten-free pasta made from chickpea flour that co-founder Scott Rudolph said is not only nutritionally superior, but also tastes just like regular wheat pasta. (Unfortunately, there wasn’t any available for the crowd to sample.)

After brief deliberations, the judges selected Banza as the winner. Rudolph told the crowd that Banza was mostly developed by his health nut brother Brian, a Venture for America fellow in Detroit. Though the company was just launched in January, the Meijer grocery store chain has already placed an initial order and will carry Banza in its Michigan stores soon.

O’Connell said the judges chose Banza as the winner because it was closest to getting to market, but she urged the other two startups not to give up. “All of you have real heart,” she added.

Leslie Smith, the president and CEO of TechTown, said that Comcast reached out to the incubator to host the event after touring a number of venues in Detroit. (Comcast has long had a cubicle in TechTown and sponsors a number of events there each year.) “We were stoked that they asked us to host,” Smith said.

The startups that participated in the pitch contest submitted applications online ahead of the event and were chosen because they were deemed to be simpatico with RocketHub’s crowdfunding mission, Smith said. Though the air date of the Detroit episode of Project Startup hasn’t been determined, Smith said it will be announced on TechTown’s Twitter feed as soon as it’s been cleared by A&E.

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