Launch Tank lures student entrepreneurs

March 7th, 2017

By Dave Kurtz | KPC News - The Star

Ash Amburgey, a freshman at Eastside High School in Butler, wants to sell tie-dyed T-shirts that raise money for animal welfare.

Keenon Smith, an Eastside junior, hopes to market a sneaker with snap-on cleats.

Their senior schoolmate, David Wallace, is building a business plan around golf.

All three are aiming to become finalists in DeKalb County’s first Launch Tank competition for high school students, April 18 at County Line Church of God.

At the contest, individual students and teams from four high schools in the county will present their business plans to a panel of judges, similar to the reality TV show “Shark Tank.”

Winners will receive prizes including grants and assistance in starting their businesses, plus scholarship offers from four northeast Indiana colleges ranging up to $12,000 per year.

Launch Tank aims “to get kids interested in going to college, but then eventually coming back and staying in northeast Indiana,” said Chris Straw, owner of Team Quality Services in Auburn and organizer of the student competition.

An entrepreneur himself, Straw is a longtime member of DeKalb County’s Learning Link organization.

“One of the goals of the committee is to try and link area businesses with area students,” Straw said. “Kids don’t know about the businesses. They don’t realize what’s in their own backyard.”

Straw saw a path to that goal when he learned about Launch LaGrange, which got off to a successful start last year.

Ryne Krock, economic development director for LaGrange County, proposed the idea to his county’s four high schools.

“Let’s give kids a chance to go out and create a business,” was his message, he said.

Each school formed a club focused on helping students enter the competition. A teacher at each school served as a club sponsor, recruiting students and helping them with their projects.

Krock said more than two dozen business leaders from LaGrange County and beyond served as mentors for the students, exceeding his expectations.

Four colleges in northern Indiana came through with scholarship offers, topped by Ivy Tech’s $12,000 for each member of the first-place team.

“The scholarships kind of changed the game, and it gave students something more to compete for than just a startup grant,” Krock said.

Each school chose two finalists, and when the eight teams or individuals gathered for judging last spring, it attracted more than 200 spectators, with another 100 people watching a live stream.

“The kids came up with really exciting ventures,” Krock said. “Several of them were viable and are operational today.”

Cole Miller of Lakeland High School won the first competition with his Millermatic low-cost irrigation system for small farms that connects into a residential well.

Students now are preparing for the second Launch LaGrange, scheduled for March 23 at the Farmstead Inn of Shipshewana.

“I think we’re on to something here,” Krock said. In addition to DeKalb County modeling its first-year program after LaGrange County’s example, Krock has heard interest from Noble, Steuben, Whitley and Elkhart counties.

“Anything we can do to help you create a similar program, we’re going to do,” Krock said. “My vision would be at some point for this to be a regional competition.”

As DeKalb County’s first competition approaches, “There’s involvement all over the place. … The kids are being very resourceful,” Straw said. DeKalb, Eastside and Garrett high schools and Lakewood Park Christian School are participating.

Eastside went beyond the idea of starting a club and made Launch Tank the focus of a business class taught by Holly Blomeke. Her students are working toward the school’s internal competition to choose two entrants for the county finals.

“It is a lot on their shoulders,” Blomeke said about the independent-study format of her class. “They have to push themselves to do the work, and I’m just kind of their mentor.”

Eastside’s Amburgey is developing Compassion Fashion. She wants each sale of her custom T-shirts to include a donation to a local animal shelter or national animal welfare cause.

Keenon envisions a shoe he could wear both on and off the football field.

“It’s just something that’s not out there right now,” he said.

Wallace says his golf business would include simulators that allow playing against an opponent halfway around the world, as well as customizing, repairing and selling golf clubs. He has been accepted to study golf management next year at Trine University in Angola, and he hopes to win one of the scholarships Trine is offering to Launch Tank winners.

For DeKalb County Launch Tank’s winners, scholarship offers include up to $12,000 from Indiana Tech, $10,000 from the University of Saint Francis, $4,000 from Trine and $3,000 from Ivy Tech. Most are renewable for up to four years.

“Serious scholarship commitments,” Straw assessed. “That really gives it some teeth.” He foresees growing enthusiasm for Launch Tank as word of the scholarships gets around.

“The scholarship money is huge,” Eastside’s Blomeke said, adding, “I think it will be a lot bigger next year.”