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Fifth annual New Orleans Entrepreneur Week halftime report

“Here is the thing about smart people,” said author and New Orleans native Walter Isaacson on Monday afternoon at New Orleans Entrepreneur Week. “They are a dime a dozen. It is the creative and imaginative people who really amount to something.”

In New Orleans, the residents are, among other things, creative and imaginative, and that has certainly been evidenced during New Orleans Entrepreneur Week. The startups, attendees, pitches, speakers, and public track session have showcased how diverse, unique, and ambitious New Orleanians can be.

Only two days into the week, the festival’s fifth installment has been eventful. More than $140,000 worth of business services and financial capital has been awarded, and hundreds of business owners and residents have benefited from the several educational sessions and keynote speeches at Gallier Hall.

The nationally recognized and award-winning Greater New Orleans Water Challenge was the week’s first business-pitch competition, which awarded inventor Webster Pierce, from Cut-Off, La., $50,000 in seed capital after a day of panels and speakers from within the water industry. In its third year, the Water Challenge has been successful in supporting entrepreneurs who are committed to creating ways to preserve Louisiana’s water, a commodity that our state and its industries are dependent on.

Pierce’s company, Pierce Industries, won this year’s challenge for the Wave Robber, a patented device that aims to preserve and rebuild the eroding coastlines. The mechanism is a floating step structure that captures sediment from the crashing waves on the shoreline, and piles that sediment along the marsh. The 71-year-old inventor, who has been personally financing his effort until now, will use his winnings to help finance large-scale manufacturing of his product.

The pitch competitions continued on Tuesday with four more challenges. Ooh La Bra, a company that creates designer bra straps, won the Salesforce and Silverline Challenge. At the Downtown Development District’s Downtown NOLA Arts Based Business Pitch, a prize package that included $25,000 worth of PR, legal, accounting, and real estate services was awarded to Pelican Bomb, an online platform that aims to create support within the arts community. 2-Cent was bestowed the Lagniappe award.

In its inaugural year, the InNOLAvation challenge aims to support minority owned businesses in the region and encourage them to get involved with entrepreneurship. The recently formed nonprofit also seeks to solve that national problem here in New Orleans and create a precedent that encourages minorities around the country to create high-growth businesses. $23,000 was awarded to three mobile applications – Memorandom, Snapp, and JoyHound. InNOLAvation originally awarded prizes to only first and second place; however, an additional third place prize of $3,000 was offered by one of the competition’s sponsors during intermission for the company that was chosen through an audience vote.

While the week’s roster of inaugural competitions show the region’s commitment to New Orleans-based startups and their prosperity, The Cordina Challenge will hopefully be starting what could be a trend for successful entrepreneurs who aim to continue the sustainability of the region’s startup culture. Cordina Frozen Cocktails, who are alums of the Idea Village and previous winners of the Coulter Challenge, have been able to grow their startup into a multi-million dollar business in New Orleans, and are now paying it forward with the formation of their own pitch competition, along with JEDCO, which is designed to support Jefferson Parish entrepreneurs. The first prize, valued at $43,000 in direct capital and in-kind services, was awarded to Be Well Nutrition, who just launched a line of health drinks called ICONIC.

The day’s closing “challenge” did not consist of business pitches, but was more of a challenge to the community’s inventors, problem solvers, business owners, researchers, designers, and visionaries to think of ways to create technological solutions for people with disabilities. It was a task given by Steve Gleason, former Saints player and resident hero. An entrepreneur himself, Gleason is currently developing The Team Gleason House for Innovative Living, a residential facility within St. Margaret’s Skilled Nursing Residence in New Orleans for patients living with incurable neuromuscular disorders. The facility aims to help patients with disabilities live independently by incorporating sophisticated technologies that allow them to control their environment using only their eyes.

Gleason is now confined to a wheelchair himself, and has the use only of his eyes to control his chair’s mobility and type the words that he can no longer speak, because of his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). However, as he accepts that scientists have yet to come up with an effective cure for the disease, he is encouraged by the technologies that have given back to him abilities that it has taken away. Inspired by the technologies that have been beneficial to his life, Gleason is now inspiring entrepreneurs to develop technologies that can help others with disabilities when science can’t.

While identifying the waves of entrepreneurship marked in the city’s history in his speech on Monday afternoon, Isaacson mentioned that diversity and creativity were what uniquely make New Orleans a place that inspires entrepreneurship and innovation. The variety of companies and global problems that entrepreneurs are trying to solve from New Orleans is a testament to that. New Orleans now must use that creativity to continue that momentum, and keep this entrepreneurial “wave” from settling.

Silicon Valley might have the most computer engineers and New York the finance, but New Orleans has the imagination that will solve the solutions of the world through business development.

If you want to see what I’m talking about for yourself, check out the last three days of New Orleans Entrepreneur Week at Gallier Hall and The Big Idea at Manning’s Restaurant on Friday. For details, visit The Idea Village.

To learn more about how you can support Steve Gleason’s Challenge, visit Team Gleason

Adriana Lopez writes about the New Orleans entrepreneur community for NolaVie.