WATERVILLE — Four entrepreneurs educated at Waterville colleges and invested in city-based businesses have chalked up milestones this month.
Two of the startups have landed software development grants, and one has sealed a deal with a collaborator it hopes will give both companies a boost in providing outdoor recreation opportunities during the coronavirus pandemic.
Three of those companies operate out of Bricks Coworking & Innovation Space at the Hathaway Creative Center.
Since opening in June 2018, Bricks has become a hub for technology-based business pursuits, hosting Central Maine Tech Nights, monthly events hosted by the Central Maine Growth Council, and providing space, office resources and proximity to area resources for startup companies and entrepreneurs.
The four entrepreneurs, three Colby College students and a Thomas College student, have all been involved in the televised Greenlight Maine Collegiate Challenge pitch competition, a statewide collaboration of entrepreneurial catalysts and corporate leaders that promotes and mentors the development and growth of business in the state.
Over the challenge’s five years, presenters at pitch competitions have received $20 million in investments, according to Greenlight.
Maine Technology Institute, or MTI, has awarded software development grants to two Waterville startups — Easy Eats and Sklaza — to support their expansions across Maine’s college campuses, according to the Central Maine Growth Council, the public-private collaborative partnership funded by area municipalities and businesses.
Both startups were founded by current Colby College students and address “pain points” in students’ experiences with food delivery and the sale of furniture, books and other college necessities.
Much like its web-based predecessor, Mayflower Eats, Easy Eats, founded by Christian Krohg and Katharine Dougherty, is an app-based food-delivery service platform that delivers to college dormitory doors. It employs college students who have access to campus dorms as delivery drivers.
Relaunched in early 2020, the app has logged more than 1,000 orders and 5,000 app downloads.
“Not only does Easy Eats fulfill a demand for an easier delivery experience, but it also represents an opportunity to improve the connection between Colby students and Waterville-area restaurants,” co-founder Dougherty said in a prepared statement.
“With the MTI funding, we look forward to making technical improvements based on customer feedback, scaling our efforts, and bringing these benefits to students and restaurateurs all across Maine.”
Sklaza, a name derived from “school plaza,” is an online marketplace founded by Josh Kim and devoted to college students. It tackles overconsumption, encourages recycling and environmental sustainability.
Launched in February 2020 on the Colby College campus, Sklaza has recorded more than $10,000 in transactions and 800 student users.
“I’m really excited to use the MTI funding to bring Sklaza to my next college campuses in the fall,” Kim said.
Easy Eats is a current finalist in Greenlight Maine’s Collegiate Challenge pitch competition. Sklaza was a semifinalist in Greenlight Maine’s Collegiate Challenge.
Located at the Bricks Coworking & Innovation Space, Easy Eats and Sklaza are seeking team members. Easy Eats is hiring a full-time software developer, and Kim is seeking a partner who is a college student with web development expertise.
“Technology and innovation is a key area of growth for downtown Waterville, and the mid-Maine region, and the success of Easy Eats and Sklaza is both a testament to their founders’ hard work and to the support of incredibly dynamic partners including MTI, Bricks Coworking & Innovation Space, and Colby College,” said Garvan Donegan, director of planning and economic development at Central Maine Growth Council.
Bioenergy startup TreeFreeHeat, founded in 2019 by Dylan Veilleux, a senior at Thomas College and entrepreneur based at Bricks Coworking & Innovation Space, has signed its first distribution deal with Back40, another Maine startup that operates an e-commerce site for outdoor gear rentals.
The new partnership gives consumers — whether experienced in outdoor activities or first-time campers — access to TreeFreeHeat’s initial product offering: Hemp stalk-based fire starters for campfires and cooking grills.
Henry Gilbert, founder of Back40, wrote in a prepared statement: “We are excited to supplement our gear rental options with TreeFreeHeat’s fire starters. It’s a great product that makes camping easier, and partnering with another Maine business is a no-brainer for us.”
Both companies were contestants in the Greenlight Maine pitch competition: Back40 in the flagship competition, TreeFreeHeat in the Collegiate Challenge.
The two startups formalized their connection at Waterville’s Central Maine Tech Night. For TreeFreeHeat, Back40 provides promotion and distribution to its target market, including campers, campgrounds and employer wellness programs.
For Back40, the bioenergy fire starters made of renewable hemp stalk waste reflect the brand’s commitment to environmental sustainability and innovation, while fulfilling consumer demand.
“Partnerships have been essential to TreeFreeHeat’s growth, and Henry’s commitment to making adventuring easy makes Back40 an ideal partner,” Veilleux said. “As soon as I learned about what he was building, I knew he’d be a perfect match.”
Added Donegan, “TreeFreeHeat’s growth is a testament to Dylan Veilleux’s tenacity and strategic use of the entrepreneurship resources in the Waterville area,”