After two months of research and refinement, a group of regional entrepreneurs recently pitched their business plans and products to a venture capitalist and a lender at the Venture School Launch Day Competition on Thursday, April 13. Two were awarded top recognition and will advance to the statewide competition, ENTREfest, this summer to compete for a $35,000 prize pool.

The competition was the culminating event for the 2023 Venture School cohort.

Venture School is a program of the University of Iowa’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. It uses the official National Science Foundation I-Corps curriculum to help high-potential startups turn their ideas into reality. For the past 16 years, the Eastern Iowa Community Colleges’ (EICC) Small Business Development Center (SBDC) has partnered with the university to provide the program to entrepreneurs in the region.

“Venture School graduates have excelled in raising capital, creating jobs, launching products and services, turning profit, and creating additional joint ventures,” said EICC SBDC Regional Director Joel Youngs. “We are proud of the work we do to ensure entrepreneurs in our region have all the tools, resources and opportunities to excel. Every successful start-up strengthens our communities.”

The five start-ups in the 2023 Venture School cohort were:

  • Autistic & Loved LLC., entrepreneur Kit Ford. This start-up makes chewable, personalized jewelry that is OSHA tested and approved. Ford’s business received top recognition in the pitch competition and will advance to ENTREfest.

    Check for Autistic & Loved LLC Photo, pictured: Kit Ford receives $2,500 check from the University of Iowa’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center

  • Golden Hands, entrepreneurs Marlon Ganaway and Ashuan Thomas. This community activism program focuses on renovating homes, increasing home ownership and providing skills training. Its initial target market is Black males, whose home ownership rate is less than half of white families, and has plans to broaden the program to other minorities in the future.

  • Culture Crush (app) by Black Resources Inc., entrepreneur Elois Willis. This app gives consumers instant access to a list of all Black owned and controlled entities in the region, which Willis compiled into a book 30 years ago, as well as culturally significant and historical information.

  • M.A.D Bakery (My American Dream), entrepreneur Roshani Samdurkar. This start-up makes more than 20 healthy and delicious sourdough products. M.A.D. Bakery is opening in the Freight House Farmer’s market this spring as well as an in-home micro-bakery. Samdurkar received top recognition in the pitch competition and will advance to ENTREfest.

    A.D Bakery Display Photo, pictured: Roshani Samdurkar and Vikram Nair showcase baked goods to be sold at M.A.D Bakery

  • Chaos Coffee & Production House, entrepreneur Paxton Loquist. This start-up currently stage manages local high school musicals and will expand the business to provide new entertainment venues in the area.

Over seven weeks, the cohort met weekly, worked with instructors and mentors, and conducted more than 75 client discovery meetings, Youngs said. “The curriculum leans into client discovery, allowing them to become more entrepreneurial, consider new customer archetypes, and learn new tactics for marketing, distribution, or minimum viable product concepts. They were challenged to use those findings to pivot, preserve or enhance their original business plans,” he added.

In addition to Youngs, instructors and mentors for this cohort included: Tom Trone, SCORE Iowa District Director; Conor Flaherty, entrepreneur and former Venture School state award winner; Lynn Friesth, entrepreneur and former Venture School participant.

About the EICC SBDC

Eastern Iowa Community Colleges’ (EICC) Small Business Development Center (SBDC) has been providing services to Scott, Clinton, Jackson, and Muscatine counties since 1985, as one of 13 centers in the Iowa SBDC network. The center supports small business owners with their vision by providing one-on-one counseling, workshops and online assistance, as well as connections to other service providers and capital sources. Partially funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration and the State of Iowa, the SBDCs are extraordinary in generating new jobs, sales, and financing. 

Questions? We’re here to help. Contact Joel Youngs, EICC’s SBDC Regional Director, at or 563-336-3401, 1-888-336-3907.