The Times West Virginian


April 27, 2014

West Virginia Statewide Collegiate Business Plan Competition winners selected

FAIRMONT — The West Virginia Statewide Collegiate Business Plan Competition continues to help bring new businesses to life in the state.

Gaylynn Johnson, a graduate student studying horticulture at West Virginia University, was recently awarded $10,000 for winning in the Hospitality and Tourism category of the 2013-2014 competition. Johnson, 28, from Belleville, Mich., expects to complete her master’s degree this summer.

Jessica Elliott, a senior at WVU, won in the Lifestyle and Innovation category and received $10,000 as well. Elliott, 27, from Hedgesville, will graduate in December with her bachelor’s degree in animal sciences.

In addition, WVU students Harold Vass and Alan Davis won the same prize in the STEM/Technology category, which was new to the competition this year. Davis, 21, is a senior from Pittsburgh, Pa., who has studied environmental and natural resource economics and is getting ready to graduate. Vass, 24, from Beckley, received his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and is currently working on his graduate degree in resource economics.

The winners’ awards also included legal, accounting and incubator assistance to help them in the startup of their businesses, said Steve Cutright, director of the WVU College of Business & Economics’ BrickStreet Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

This year’s contest was the eighth statewide competition that the WVU BrickStreet Center has hosted. The competition, which spans the course of the academic year and involves three rounds, is open to full-time students from four-year colleges and universities across West Virginia.

The 2013-2014 competition started in October with 235 teams from 11 colleges and universities submitting summaries of their business ideas, which was a record year for participants, Cutright said.

The entries were cut down to 30 semifinalists — 10 in each category — who were invited to compete in round two, held in November at Marshall University in Huntington. For the semifinals, each team submitted a feasibility study, gave an elevator pitch for their business plan in front of a panel of judges, and then went through individual interviews with the judges.

In December, the 15 finalists — five teams in each category — that were chosen to move forward in the contest were announced, and they spent most of the spring semester preparing for the final round.

Cutright explained that the final round took place on Friday, April 4, at the Waterfront Place Hotel in Morgantown. All 15 finalists started the day with practice sessions from 9 a.m. until noon, when they paused for lunch.

Then the competition ran from 1 to 4 p.m., with the presentations for the three categories going on simultaneously in different rooms, he said. Each team submitted its 20-page business plan and was given 15 minutes for its final presentation and 10 minutes for a question-and-answer session with the judges. Sixteen judges from across the state in private industry, state government and academia participated, Cutright said.

The judging then occurred on site for about an hour, followed by a reunion with about 12 past competition participants, including two previous winners, and dinner. Then at 7 p.m., the three award winners for this year were announced, he said.

Cutright commented that he thought this year’s competition was the best one they’ve had so far, based on the amount of community support, student participation and the quality of the presentations.

“Overall, these were the most thought out, advanced presentations that we have seen to date in the business plan competition,” he said.

During the time span of the competition, Johnson was also working on her thesis and trying to write three manuscripts for peer-reviewed literature, which all kept her plenty busy and led to many nights without a lot of sleep. After learning that she had won in the competition’s Hospitality and Tourism category, she felt a bit overwhelmed.

“When they called my name, it was just a shock and a relief that I had won, and it was a new step to furthering my business goal,” she said. “It was a huge weight off my shoulders.”

Johnson’s business, called Mountain State Hydroponics, specializes in the year-round production of vegetables, fruits and herbs using hydroponics. By growing these products in a mineral nutrient solution instead of soil, she is able to provide local, fresh, high-quality items to her customers.

She explained that she came up with the idea for the business through her graduate research on a method called aquaponics, which involves using fish waste — instead of manmade fertilizers — to create a crop. Johnson decided she wanted to create a business out of this work that she loves doing.

She is currently looking into obtaining land in Ritchie County or somewhere in the mid Ohio Valley for Mountain State Hydroponics and is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Johnson can’t wait to get her products into the hands of customers, either through restaurants, wholesale distributors or farmers markets. She’s hoping to see this happen by early January of 2015.

In the past, she always had a ton of business ideas but never wrote them down on paper and never made a business plan. Through the competition, she learned that the key to getting started with a business is to put a lot of effort into a plan and to make it unique. Johnson said she also found out the importance of marketing herself and determining who would want her products before making a large investment.

Elliott echoed that all of her own hard work paid off with her win in the Lifestyle and Innovation category. She said this accomplishment felt really good and was very exciting for her, and was even more special because her parents were present at the final round.

“It’s definitely going to help me with the startup expenses,” she said of the competition prize.

Her business, called Rena Snacks, offers readily made snack foods for renal patients. She explained that individuals experiencing kidney problems need to have a low-phosphorus, low-sodium diet, and her business’ goal is to provide trail mixes, protein bars, popcorn, cookies and other snack foods that meet those special dietary needs.

Elliott came up with the idea for Rena Snacks because her dad, John, is experiencing kidney failure and undergoing dialysis. She saw how hard it was for him to change his diet when there weren’t a lot of products on the market, so she decided to change that for him.

Other dialysis patients have also expressed excitement for Rena Snacks and have commented that it’s about time someone started a business like this, she said.

Right now, Elliott is in the process of getting the trademarks completed, the bags approved, and other legal matters settled. The business is certified with the state, so she can start manufacturing whenever she is ready.

She plans to go to medical conferences and clinics and talk to doctors about her products.

“I’m going to do some traveling to get the name out there,” she said. “We’re hoping everybody likes it.”

Elliott said the long hours and long days that she put into the business plan competition allowed her to learn a vast amount about the business world, entrepreneurship and making contacts.

“It’s good to learn all of that before you start your business,” she said. “It’s very helpful.”

For their business, Weld Safe Technologies, Vass and Davis came up with a new device to increase worker safety in environments such as the oil and gas field, coal mining and the manufacturing industry.

Davis thought of the idea through his past work experience and brainstorming in one of his classes. Through a mutual professor, he learned about Vass’ work with business startup and his engineering background and thought he would be an asset to the business.

They met and signed a letter of intent and a couple binding agreements to make sure their friendship stays strong. Then they worked together to create a business plan, and put close to 200 hours into their competition efforts over the last four months.

Vass said they are now finalizing all the articles of organization for their business and have filed a provisional patent application. They are working with the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing in Bridgeport and Cart Inc. in Bluefield to develop a prototype for their product that’s market-ready and able to be customized by the end of the summer.

Davis said they are really happy with what they accomplished. Besides winning in the STEM/Technology category, they also gained a lot of knowledge through their participation in the competition. For instance, the contest helped them become business savvy.

“We learned general skills that could help us to further develop this business and other business ventures in the future,” Davis said.

Also, they found out the amount of planning that goes into starting a business, created some very promising industry contacts, and laid out a solidified growth plan for their business in the coming years, Vass said. They’re already getting some really good feedback from the industry and people have shown interest in their product.

If anyone has questions or is interested in Weld Safe Technologies, they can email

Vass and Davis wished to thank the following people for helping them put together their winning business plan and continuing to assist them in moving forward: WVU professor Fonda Holehouse, attorney Brian Corcoran, Justin Gaull from the West Virginia Small Business Development Center, attorney Mary-Jacq Holroyd, and Steve Cutright and Tara St. Clair of the WVU BrickStreet Center.

Email Jessica Borders at or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.

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