Female Students Shine in UM’s Annual Business Startup Competition

UM's Gallagher Business Building houses the College of Business.
A picture of UM graduate Lily Clark holding mushrooms.
UM graduate Lily Clarke captured the top prize for her High Morel business idea during the 31st annual John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge.

MISSOULA – Female students with startup ideas ranging from mushrooms to smart-phone apps were the biggest winners at the 31st annual John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge earlier this month at the University of Montana.

Postponed from March due to COVID-19, the rescheduled competition featured fresh, innovative business ideas from college students across Montana. The winners of the 2020 event were announced at the live virtual public event, with over $50,000 being awarded to competitors.

JRBSC is hosted by the UM College of Business and UM Blackstone LaunchPad. Started in 1989, the startup challenge is one of the UM’s premier student competitions. As the only statewide student startup competition, JRBSC provides strong opportunities and exposure for aspiring entrepreneurs. It is supported by title sponsors Ontra Marketing Group, First Interstate Bank, First Security Bank and the Missoula Economic Partnership.

Following a record-setting number of applicants, nine teams were selected by expert judges from around the state to compete online over a two-week period. The nine teams pitched their business ideas and engaged in Q&A sessions with a panel of judges online, before the final four teams were selected for the live event.

In recent years, the College of Business and Blackstone LaunchPad have sought to address the underrepresentation of female students in the competition, a factor that mirrors women’s reduced participation in entrepreneurship nationally. In 2015, UM Regents Professor of Marketing Jakki Mohr initiated the Pursue Your Passion program to encourage female students to explore their interests and consider the potential for starting a business.

JRBSC also added the Athena Award to recognize the team with the most notable female participation. The results of these efforts were on clear display at this year’s competition, with the nine teams having a 50/50 female-to-male ratio, and the final four teams selected had seven women and two men.

“It’s tremendous to see women not just competing but being recognized for the quality of their ideas and their ability to pitch those ideas in a compelling way to a diverse group of judges,” Mohr said.

The Pursue Your Passion program has grown under the leadership of Morgan Slemberger, UM’s director of women’s entrepreneurship and leadership, who has greatly increased the level of interest and engagement of female students in entrepreneurship.

“This competition demonstrates that when we provide women with a safe environment to say their ideas out loud, they can and will succeed,” Slemberger said.

The final four teams and students were:

  • Gallatin Visual Media – Erinn Hermsen and Nate Kenney. Gallatin Visual Media is a science communication production company that helps university professors communicate their research and its impacts to the public through film and photography in a way that creates a personal connection and spurs support and action.
  • High Morel – Lily Clarke. High Morel alleviates costs and accessibility to wastewater treatment for breweries by using mushrooms to remediate brewery wastewater.
  • SporeAttic – Benjamin Deuling and Ali Moxley. SporeAttic is a commercial gourmet mushroom farm in the process of starting up in Bozeman.
  • Will Care – Kimberly Rogers, Jennifer King, Susan Tangmo and Vanessa Fiore. Will Care provides easy-to-understand, step-by-step video instructions that enable the customer to create a legal, dynamic will that tells a story by adding personalized photos or videos around assets.

At the live event, the four student teams pitched their business ideas and plans live to fellow students, community members and a panel of judges. Each team was allotted 10 minutes to present before a quick Q&A session with the judges and audience members. The judges then voted electronically to select the top team.

In the end, Lily Clarke, who graduated from UM with a Master in Systems Ecology earlier this year, and her business High Morel, took home the top prize of $15,000.

Teams SporeAttic and Gallatin Visual Media tied for the second spot, and each was awarded $6,250. The team of Will Care, featuring two UM College of Business MBA graduates, earned $2,500 for fourth place.

“As a scientist without prior business experience, it is wonderful to win this competition,” Clarke said. “I have received an incredible amount of encouragement and support from the Blackstone LaunchPad and community mentors, including Jenn Ewan, who helped me see the potential to transfer my scientific knowledge and ideas into a business that can positively impact our environment and communities.”

In addition to the final round prizes to the top four, there were a number of special awards given out among the top nine competitors. These include the Public Choice Award and Elevator Pitch Award, which were voted on by the public. All prize money for the competition is generously contributed by businesses, organizations and individuals committed to the future of entrepreneurship in Montana.

The special awards sent to:

  • People’s Choice Award: SporeAttic ($3,500)
  • Best Elevator Pitch: Counterbalance ($3,500)
  • Most Innovative: Legitimizer ($1,500)
  • Intent to Launch: SporeAttic ($1,000)
  • Brandon Speth Award for Charisma, Passion & Poise: Joaquin Monterrosa – Legitimizer ($500) and Charles Luther – Red Patch Outdoors ($500)
  • Athena Award: Lily Clarke – High Morel ($1,000)

For more information on the competition, winners and sponsors, visit the startup challenge website at https://www.umt.edu/startup/.


Contact: Paul Gladen, director of UM Accelerate Montana and Blackstone LaunchPad, 406-396-3534, paul.gladen@umontana.edu.