GRAND JUNCTION — The founders of five Western Slope startups walked out of the second-annual Greater Colorado Pitch Series with more than $3 million in funding on July 16.
Eight rural innovators — gleaned from more than 100 contenders — were vying for $1.3 million in capital from four different investors as part of the Greater Colorado Venture Fund’s pitch contest, which wrapped Grand Junction’s West Slope Startup Week.
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Those investors upped their contributions after seeing the startup pitches. Agile Space Industries, which makes propulsion systems for rockets in Durango, came away the big winner with a $1.8 million loan from Denver’s Greenline Ventures.
Agile Space Industries co-founder Jeff Max has grown his rocket-building team to 40 from four people two years ago. With investors like Greenline Ventures, which spent several days touring Agile’s headquarters, he expects to double his team in the next year. He said his company is in a “hyper-growth phase.”
The $1.8 million loan will help Agile buy $200,000 to $800,000 3D laser printers that create components out of rare metal alloys. Max said it is “very, very difficult” to get local banks to underwrite a business that is growing as quickly as Agile, even though the company is profitable. So investment by Greenline can fuel the company’s, ahem, skyrocketing growth. Max said his team is determined to raise capital from local community sources that recognize the company’s contributions to Durango and the Four Corners region.
“There is a resurgence of space as a place,” said Max, pointing to the growing list of satellite-dependent companies — and the billionaire space race — sending more crafts into orbit. And those rockets require propulsion. “This is an industry that is just kicking off now. This is the next tech revolution.”
Greenline Ventures was supposed to choose between Agile and Western Rise, a Telluride men’s apparel maker. The venture capital company instead selected both, making a $1.5 million loan to Western Rise.
Greenline Ventures President and Co-founder Patrick Vahey said strong growth and healthy investors behind both Agile and Western Rise warrant the debt investment.
“Greenline is an impact-driven investment firm and, although we have a national footprint as far as where we lend and invest, we have a strong interest in supporting companies on the Western Slope,” he said. “We feel that both Western Rise and Agile are great examples of companies that are creating strong, well-paid jobs in their respective communities.”
Kelly Watters, the CEO and co-founder of Western Rise, said the investment from Greenline Ventures will help her company buy materials for its performance-oriented everyday clothing (think pedal-to-the-office pants) and expand its products.
The Fund Rockies delivered $50,000 to Konbit, a southwest Colorado tech company that united small investors with independent farmers across the globe and hopes to use the new funding to expand onto 100 farms in the next year.
First Southwest Community Fund awarded $50,000 to Gunnison’s SheFly. SheFly founder Georgia Grace Edwards was guiding climbers on glaciers in Alaska and spending an inordinate amount of time shedding layers to answer nature’s call when she dreamed up the idea for a zipper that gives women “a new peeing superpower,” she said.
Edwards has sold about 500 of her patented zipper pants since 2018, even though the fair-trade, zero-waste factory she was using in India shut down last year and she lost all her inventory. A graduate of the Moosejaw Outdoor Accelerator business mentoring program at Western Colorado University’s ICELab, she has about 10 workers supporting SheFly right now, though none are getting paid. She’s lined up new factories in China and Vietnam and hopes the new round of support will help make 10,000 SheFly pants, which will be sold online and in stores in the next year.
She’s also hoping to license the SheFly zipper to other apparel companies who can incorporate her zip-and-pee design into more technical sportswear like ski bibs and fishing waders.
“We are simultaneously hoping to be an ingredient brand for any other company that wants to use this technology while maintaining our own independent brand for our own products,” she said.
Greater Colorado Venture Fund principals Cory and Jamie Finney expect more investments will come out of the pitch series event, with investors still exploring opportunities with a host of Western Slope startups. The Greater Colorado Venture Fund, which has invested in 21 rural Colorado startups in the last several years, awarded $250,000 to Fruita’s Sky Peak Technologies. The technology saves both network providers and users money by delivering smaller amounts of data to mobile phones while maintaining video quality.
“Being able to do this from Fruita, Colorado, is like ‘Wow, pinch me. This can hardly be real,’” said Cat Coughran, Sky Peaks’ head of marketing and business development. “We can do this and take over the world from anywhere, so why not do it from Fruita, Colorado, where we really want to be.”