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Shopping challenge made for perfect pitch

Nick Elliott and Cody Schmidt saw a challenge in grocery shopping.

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Cody Schmidt, one of the developers of Adapt-a-Cart, demonstrates how to use the product at Sunshine Foods in Chatfield on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020. The device attaches to a grocery cart and a person's wheelchair, allowing them to control the cart. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

Nick Elliott and Cody Schmidt saw a challenge in grocery shopping.

The former roommates faced the choice between balancing a small basket on their laps or trying to push a cart with one hand while maneuvering their wheelchairs with the other hand.

"We saw the issue of having to push the grocery cart while also having to push your chair, and knew as it got heavier and heavier, it would get harder and harder," Elliott said. "We just experienced it so many times, so we talked about it and thought of ways it could be better."

The challenge spurred the two Rochester Community and Technical College grads to make the top pitch in the first Assistive Tech Challenge conducted by Destination Medical Center.

Their pitch centered on a device that connects wheelchairs to grocery carts, allowing users to maneuver a cart with a chair, while also allowing the flexibility to quickly attach and detach as needed.

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Fourteen months later, Elliott and Schmidt continue tweaking the prototype they presented to DMC judges on Nov. 3, 2018, and they are working toward a utility patent under the name Adapt-A-Cart, with the hopes of making it easier for anyone to shop from a wheelchair.

Schmidt, a product engineer at Spring Valley’s KFI Products, said the goal is to make it as easy to use as possible.

With the help of Creating Ability owner Kevin Carr, the first device emerged, and updates are being honed as it nears a new testing phase.

Throughout testing, Elliott said he and Schmidt quickly knew their idea had potential.

"We knew we were onto something once we built the prototype and we used it at HyVee," he said. Since then, they have also tested it at Sunshine Foods in Chatfield, which is closer to Carr’s shop.

Elliott, who found out about the challenge while interning at Mayo Clinic, said the project continued to grow with DMC input.

"They gave us a lot of support both before and after the challenge," he said.

Chris Schad, the organizer of the challenge and director of business development at DMC’s Discovery Square, said the challenge, which is currently taking applications for its second pitch competition, is intended to spur new ideas.

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"The Assistive Tech Challenge puts a spotlight on the region’s innovative spirit," he said. "It encourages entrepreneurs to develop their ideas while showcasing solutions for individuals with disabilities."

In addition to helping generate new companies, like Adapt-A-Cart, the event raises awareness of other startups and draws them to Rochester.

Such was the case for Eden Prairie-based Vitals Aware Services, a service using technology to provide first responders, educators and others access to updated information on people with special needs.

The company, which was launched in 2017, won the professional division in the first Assistive Tech Challenge.

Stan Alleyne, Vitals Aware Services director of communications, said the event offered the chance to extend the new company’s reach and hone its message amid growth.

"It also helped us really work on and refine our pitch," he said. "We talk about it every day, but we don’t just have five minutes to do it."

Elliott and Schmidt said honing the pitch was important to the process, but the response was just as important for moving ahead with their project.

"We’re always looking for feedback on it, and a lot of people have helped us along the way," Elliot said.

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Schad said that’s one of the benefits of participating in a pitch competition, whether a project wins or falls short of expectations. He said the judges can validate ideas, ask questions that spur further tweaks and provide insights for future effort.

"It could also be very humbling, because they are getting feedback," he said of the process.

For Elliot and Schmidt, the feedback, along with the competition’s cash prize, was valuable for moving their idea toward a reality that will overcome the grocery store challenge.

The pair plan to take Adapt-A-Cart to the Walleye Tank pitch competition in May as a student qualifier, with hopes of building on their success.

Until then, they are streamlining and tweaking their winning idea until it’s ready to launch in a local store.

"We’d like to start locally and from there go as far as we can," Schmidt said.

1. Applications are being accepted.

Destination Medical Center is taking applications from individuals and teams for the second Assistive Tech Challenge. Applications are available on the DMC website at https://dmc.mn.

The online application deadline is Feb 10.

Applications will be evaluated by judges, and 12 — six in the open class and six in the professional class — will be chosen to make pitches. The pitch competition takes place April 4 at the Rochester Civic Theatre.

2. The challenge combined two ideas.

Chris Schad, organizer of the challenge and director of business development at Destination Medical Center’s Discovery Square, said DMC officials were discussing ideas for a pitch competition at the same time that regional representatives from The Arc were planning an assistive tech expo.

The two ideas fit hand-in-hand, he said, noting that one of DMC’s initiatives is to find ways to overcome existing challenges.

"They were really good partners for us," Schad said of The Arc.

3. The goal is to find products or solutions to address specific needs.

For the 2020 Assistive Tech Challenge, potential participants are being asked to develop a product or service related to:

  • Independent living
  • Access to employment
  • Support for care providers
  • Social skill development, or
  • Improved public infrastructure

4. DMC has been recruiting potential pitches.

A series of design workshops throughout the region last year were held with the intent of stirring new ideas and encouraging participation in the Assistive Tech Challenge.

Schad said it’s too early to say whether the effort paid off, but he has heard from some workshop participants who said they are working on potential pitches.

5. Participants have eight minutes to sell their ideas.

The individuals or teams selected to make pitches will have five minutes to address several questions in their pitches. The questions are:

  • What problem are you solving?
  • How are you solving the problem?
  • Why is your team the one to solve it?
  • What do you need to further develop your idea?

Following the pitch will be a three-minute question-and-answer session with the judges.

8f6ba2d3bc75ae0797eec5e5c75895dc.jpg
A close-up of Adapt-a-Cart on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020, at Sunshine Foods in Chatfield. The device attaches to a grocery cart and a person's wheelchair, allowing them to control the cart. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

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