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    The Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Metro East Startup Challenge, a regional business plan competition, has announced its three cash prize winners, with Waterloo-based VAST Produce earning first place and the grand prize of $10,000.
    Beastman Tea, LLC, founded by Bradford Eastman, won the $6,000 second-place prize.  Eli Ball grabbed the $4,000 third-place award for Midway Spark, LLC.
    Brothers Benjamin, Jonathan, Tyler, Andrew, William and Dylan Meuth have created a Virtual Aquaponics and Sustainable Growth technology that enables them to grow fish and premium lettuce and herbs year round for the St. Louis metro area consumers and restaurants.  Their produce is already available at local farmers markets as well as at Soulard Market in St. Louis. The cash award will enable the brothers to invest in the equipment needed to expand and promote their business.
    With Beastman Tea, Eastman hopes to promote healthy, naturally flavored green tea products without all of the added chemicals and sugars found in most ready-to-drink beverages. His teas are already available at Green Earth Grocery in Edwardsville and will be available at other outlets in the near future.
    Midway Spark, founded by Eli Ball, has created an app for use by zoos and potentially other public venues across the country, allowing the venue to provide up-to-date information for attendees as well as offer the zoo the ability to easily update their information about special events and sponsorship opportunities.  
    Jo Ann DiMaggio May, Illinois Small Business Development Center for the Metro East at SIUE, was director and organizer of the competition, helped along by SBDC Business Specialist Marti Guntren and graduate students Adrinè Krikorian and Chelsea Mettler.
    “I am humbly impressed by the large number of superior quality concepts brought forth by the participants,” said May. “It made our evaluation process and final decision on awarding the prize money extremely difficult.”
    The Illinois SBDC for the Metro East at SIUE and East St. Louis organizes and manages the competition with the support of the SIUE School of Business.
    The three winners will also receive in-kind support from Curtis Bailey, Huffman Law and accounting services from Scheffel Boyle to help them form their businesses and manage their start-up expenses.
    Finalists in the 2018 Metro East Startup Challenge also included:

  •     Hoot Owl Software, Jim and Ryan Sheldon
  •     The Senala Group, Veronica Armouti
  •     Dry Street Gardens, Elliander Elldridge
  •     Core Tactical Advantage Concepts, Chuck Cadell
  •     Visionary Tech Solutions, Shawn Epps

    The SBDC organized a group of business mentors and startup advisors to assist the 17 MESC semifinalists with their business plans.  For the fifth consecutive year, Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, SIUE School of Business and University Park at SIUE were the Startup Challenge’s cornerstone sponsors. America’s Central Port, Scott Credit Union, and the city of Collinsville were this year’s premier sponsors.
    Other sponsors included the city of Edwardsville, Growth Corp, St. Clair County, Town & Country Bank (Edwardsville and Fairview Heights locations), Madison County, First Bank, Anders CPAs and Advisors, the city of Alton, Carrollton Bank, the city of Highland, Commerce Bank, the Riverbend Growth Association, the city of Columbia and the BARBERMURPHY Group.