McALLEN – What do a delivery drone, a skincare cream and a networking smartphone app have in common? They’re all ideas the McAllen Chamber of Commerce deemed worthy of $5,000 to $10,000 in grant money.
The Chamber awarded $45,000 Aug. 22 to five teams for its annual program that disburses innovation grants to local inventors and entrepreneurs.
The goal of the competition — which has a budget of $50,000 — is to promote a culture of innovation in the Rio Grande Valley as a way to “create wealth in the community,” Chamber President Steve Ahlenius said.
“Inventors and entrepreneurs are going to be some of the major drivers in the 21st century,” he said.
Nine teams submitted written proposals to the Chamber in the hopes of earning a $10,000 grant. A panel of five judges plus two Chamber representatives culled those proposals to seven finalists who made 20 minute presentations to the panel in early August.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen Shark Tank,” said Eduardo Millet, the vice president of business development and governmental affairs at the Chamber, referencing a reality TV show in which entrepreneurs pitch ideas to judges. “We call this Dolphin Tank.”
Lika Torline – whose product line In The Weeds Natural Skin Care and facial cream Dollface earned a $5,000 grant for securing intellectual property rights and building a website – said she feared the all-male panel would discount her product.
“It was very daunting because I had seven male judges,” she said of her presentation.
But Millet said the panel stayed away from judging the merits of the individual products they were pitched, instead focusing on the business acumen of the contestants.
“They don’t bet on horses, they bet on jockeys,” he said.
Both Ahlenius and Millet said they were encouraged by the improvement in the professionalism of this year’s applicants over those in past years. The Chamber started awarding innovation grants in 2007, but did not award any grants in 2009.
“We’ve been at this now for five years in terms of getting the concept of innovation taking hold,” Ahlenius said. “We’re now starting to harvest in terms of getting better ideas. We’re starting to see the fruition of some of this time and effort.”
A group of University of Texas-Pan American students proposed one of the most ambitious ideas: an unmanned drone that can fly, drive and make deliveries.
“The drone industry is on the cusp of exploding,” said team leader Roger Pecina, 25, predicting unmanned vehicles could replace pizza delivery drivers and drivers for delivery services like UPS and FedEx.
“In terms of products, I think drones are going to be quickly replacing delivery men in the near future,” he added.
Pecina and his team won a $3,000 grant from UTPA earlier this year. The McAllen Chamber pledged $5,000 for the team immediately, with $5,000 more to be made available when they can prove their invention can fly. Pecina said the money will enable the team – which operates out of his parents’ McAllen garage – to complete the project.
Patents and trademarks are items that the Chamber encouraged grantees to pursue in order to get their products ready for market. That message was well-received. Each winning team listed “intellectual property needs” as a use for their newfound cash.