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Eco-Valve gets top prize at New Hampshire Start-Up Challenge

The next big thing in driver safety training, beer brewing, camp registrations and water conservation is here.

In its sixth year, the New Hampshire Start-Up Challenge generated more than 40 entries from entrepreneurs around the state, including winner Devon Bernard of Epping. His proposal – Eco-Valve – offers homeowners and anyone else with a shower (read: hotels) the opportunity to save water and energy by shutting off the tap when full-flow isn’t needed.

Bernard and his team will receive $55,000 in cash and in-kind services from local professionals.

The award is funded by the network’s business partners, including Alpha Loft, BusinessNH magazine, FairPoint, McLane Law Firm, the University of New Hampshire at Manchester and Dyn.

“We’ve seen that it’s important to these businesses to support the community as much as they want their business to grow. Dyn, for example, they know they might not always be the place for all of their employees, but they want to keep them in the Manchester area even if they aren’t at Dyn. Something like this promotes the vibrancy of the area and helps keep it attractive for those employees as they grow and change,” said Kate Luczko, chairwoman of the board of directors for the Manchester Young Professionals Network, which organizes the challenge.

Eco-Valve showerhead

Bernard, a rising junior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York, first thought of a product like Eco-Valve watching his girlfriend wash dishes and admitting she’s a better conservationist than he is.

“My girlfriend does dishes in a very efficient way. I leave the water running the whole time, and I thought at one point, why don’t I have a sink that would only put out water when a dish was under the faucet? And then I thought, what about showering? There are a lot of times in a shower when you don’t need full-flow water.”

Eco-Valve is a shower attachment, so people with fancy custom showerheads can continue to enjoy their luxury experience, Bernard said. It uses ultra sonic waves to detect when the bather has stepped out from under the flow of the water.

In his 5-minute pitch to the audience at the awards announcement last week, he predicted the average American family could save $153 dollars in energy costs each year by decreasing the amount of water heated and expended for inefficient showers.

With the start-up challenge money, he and his team will fine-tune their product to maximize those savings and hope to offer it for sale online direct-to-consumers by the end of the year.

They’re also talking to third-party retailers and hotels.

“There’s no way to expect whether we would win,” Bernard said. “We thought we would go through the stages and see where we got. There was pretty stiff competition . . . it was an amazing experience.”

Hops exchange

The competition included three finalists, ideas coming from a first-generation farmer, a pair of parents, and a team of inventors who started as a high school Lego robotics team.

Jameson Small, whose day job is contract farming in Strafford, proposed the Isinglass River Hops Exchange, targeting the growing local food and craft beer movements.

The exchange, with about $80,000 of funding, will purchase a pelletizer to convert local, New England grown hops into the dried form used by large and mid-sized breweries. Small plans to pursue crowd-funding through an IndieGoGo campaign and private investments to finance the project before the fall harvest.

New England hops growers have to send their harvests out of state, even across the country, for pelletizing until there’s a closer alternative. And New England breweries – more than 200 so far – aren’t able to offer the locally-sourced ingredients consumers have come to expect in other corners of their grocery carts.

Through the exchange, farmers who have built a brand for their hops can continue to sell under that name, and other smaller harvests can sell together under the Isinglass River brand, Small said.

“If we compile all our harvest into one product, we can go for (larger breweries like) Tuckermans, Smuttynose, the volume that puts money in farmers pockets and put kids through college,” Small said.

Entering the competition “was a gamble, but everything’s a gamble,” he said. “It’s really neat to see alternatives for entrepreneurs to get the funding to live out their dreams when they have these new unconventional ideas that traditional banks don’t always give you meetings for.”

Camp registration

Dan Hannon and Meredith Noyes, both professionals based in Manchester, proposed Trailoo, an online hub for parents and kids to connect with and register for camps and out-of-school programs.

Before April vacation one year, Noyes tried to find a camp for her now-13 year old daughter.

“We finally found something, but it was not a quick find, and we realized this idea has not been done, it’s not been executed well to bring something searchable for all kinds of camps,” Noyes said.

Once launched, Trailoo would be a database of camps – the all-summer sleep-away kind, but also including programs run by colleges, universities and non-profit groups – that parents and kids can search by interest, location, time frame or other metrics.

It would save camps money on advertising and administration, by streamlining the registration process, for a percent of the registration fees generated.

The start-up challenge “really lit a fire under our butts to formulate it all,” Hannon said. “It enabled us to put our idea on a table and walk around and look at all the angles and figure out how to talk about it, how to pitch it.”

The pair plans to continue working on the site as much as possible around their day jobs, Hannon as a creative executive with a movie production company and Noyes as a graphic designer and illustrator.

“We have our ideal timeline for going live but it’s all going to depend on how quickly we can get backers lined up,” Hannon said.

“But we’re not looking to throw up a website in the meantime,” Noyes said. “We’re looking to launch it as the real deal.”

Reinventing the wheel

Tristan Evarts of Londonderry presented the pitch for SMARTwheel, a project designed by The Inventioneers, who began as a FIRST LEGO League high school robotics team.

The SMARTwheel replaces a standard steering wheel with one programmed to recognize safe driving hand positions, and alert a driver to unsafe behavior.

Driving data can be stored and monitored by a third party, such as parents or employers, through an app.

The team pitched their idea last year on nationally televised Shark Tank, where celebrity investors signed on for a stake in the company.

The Inventioneers couldn’t be reached for comment last week, but Evarts said at the awards presentation they’ll be pursuing production and direct-to-consumer sales later this year.

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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