When Gaylene Anderson decided on an entrepreneurial coming-out party from her tech-transfer role at the University of Idaho, she chose the biggest business-plan competition stage in the country and picked the quintessential symbol of Idaho to tout her fledgling company.
The result was a storybook debut in which she wowed the audience and the judges and is now gaining national attention for herself and Solanux Inc., whose academia-developed process turns the potato into a health food.
The next chapter in Anderson's emergence from the relative obscurity of her university technology transfer role of the last 10 years to a once-in-a-lifetime experience as triple honoree at the Rice University Business Plan Competition will be inclusion in a special section in Fortune magazine's May issue.
In the space of three days last month, she won the Rice competition's 60-second elevator pitch, was honored by a national women's entrepreneur organization, and her team took fifth in the competition.
"The 42 finalists from among 1,600 business-plan applicants included schools like MIT, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Purdue...and Idaho," she said with a smile. "When we said we were from Idaho, people kind of chuckled. I think they thought of us as cute, but not likely to be competitive, but the opinions changed after our first presentation."
By the time the competition ended two days later, the Idaho team had won $25,000, which included $1,000 for Anderson's winning 60-second pitch, $4,000 for the team's fifth-place finish and $20,000 for the Courageous Women Entrepreneur Award.
That award came from a national women's investment group called nCourage, which Anderson says has now offered to help raise the rest of the money for the Solanux start-up.
In addition, she has been advised by the Texas Angel network that they want her to present to one of their groups in July
Most of the initial funding of about $1.5 million has come from J.R. Simplot, the Boise-based potato-products giant. And while the goal of the initial fund-raising effort has been $2.5 million, she confides that the target is now likely to double.
"We'll likely be looking now to raise $5 million because Simplot wants to expand the pilot testing phase and we want to produce a potato chip with this process, go after our own product," she said.
Her first visibility following the Rice event was in early April on CNN Money's website, where the 60-second elevator pitches by Anderson and others were featured (and which you can see on YouTube, as she talks holding up the potato, which she says she "carried everywhere" in Houston).
It hadn't been Anderson's intent to steal the show, but rather to use the competition to take a key step toward attracting investor attention for Solanux, which uses enzymes and chemicals to turn dehydrated potatoes into a healthy food product rather than starch.
"Enzymes and chemicals are used to stabilize the cell walls around potato starch, which slows digesting of the starch and increases the fiber in potatoes," Anderson said in explaining the process. "The process is used when raw potatoes are being converted to dehydrated potato flakes, granules or flour and the dried ingredients have increased health benefits, like lowering glycemic response, aiding with weight reduction and acting like a natural probiotic."
"These products will benefit diabetics, people that have allergies to corn or wheat starch products (Solanux products will be gluten free), and people that simply want more healthy (and more variety) potato products," she added.
When the product was brought to Anderson's attention in the university's tech-transfer office, she put a team together that named the product ("Solanum is Latin for potato, but I figured if we substituted an 'x' for the 'm,' it would sound techie," she explained in an interview) and has been guiding its progress.
The process was perfected by U of I food scientist Kerry Huber, who is part of the Solanux team, as is Jacob Pierson, a third-year law student with a master's in bioinformatics, whom she credits with much of the success at the Rice competition.
Anderson will be staying with the company in a key-executive capacity as future progress develops under the watchful eyes of Simplot executives. Going along with Anderson will be her husband, currently the U of I swim coach, and their teen-age sons.
It was the swimming focus of her family (her 15 and 17-year-old sons are competitive swimmers) that actually guided Anderson's first entrepreneurial venture, a learn-to-swim video called Waterproof Kids, a CD available at Wal-Mart and through Amazon. Asked if they provide her an income, she said "A little, but not enough to quit my day job."
Anderson admits that Solanux is the first tech-transfer product that ever tempted her to leave academia for the private sector. But she says when she saw U of I president N. Dwayne Nellis at an event two weekends ago and advised him of her decision to leave, he convinced her to instead take a two-year entrepreneurial leave.
In what may be the makings of a marketing pitch for products that are eventually created from the Solanux process, Anderson enthuses: "This may be our best hope for eating French fries without self-hate."
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