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From mushroom cultivation to workplace safety, ‘Big Ideas’ triumph in the PA Wilds


On June 9, 2022, six fledgling companies from the PA Wilds competed for a piece of $50,000. It was the first of three planned Ben Franklin Technology Partners Big Idea Contests in this sprawling and dynamic region — and the winners are a perfect example of the innovative spirit that flourishes there. 

Billett Electric, based in Jefferson County, and the PA Mushroom Company of Clarion County split the prize money. The two victorious founders represent two very different sectors and two very different paths to entrepreneurship. 

For Esperanzo Wilcox, it started with chanterelles. 

“I went out foraging for the first time in Colorado,” he recalls. “Going out into the woods, finding a wild food, and then being able to cook it and enjoy it — I was fascinated by that process. I wanted to learn more and I wanted to be able to share that experience with other people.”

When he returned to Clarion County, he joined the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club — members had a diverse set of interests, from photography, to DNA sequencing, to identification, to edibility, to cultivation. It was a wonderful source of knowledge and inspiration. 

Esperanzo Wilcox of the PA Mushroom Co.

Wilcox built a home lab so he could experiment with cultures. He started a culture bank of native species from throughout Pennsylvania, working towards domesticating wild genetics for commercial cultivation. After about a year and a half of growing his own mushrooms, he launched the PA Mushroom Company.

Wilcox made the initial investment in equipment himself and then got a bump from a $10,000 AgChoice jumpstart grant. During a phone call with Cindy Nellis at the Clarion University SBDC, she mentioned the Big Idea Contest and encouraged him to apply.

The winnings will help the PA Mushroom Company acquire commercial space to house their current operations and expand the lab. The plan is to stay in the PA Wilds region.

“We’re nestled in between Cook Forest and the Allegheny National Forest, and I feel those are pivotal places to what we do,” says Wilcox. “The microclimate is great for mushroom production and mycelium development.” 

The experience overall was quite challenging, but it was also rewarding. It changed my life and it changed the direction of our company for the better.Esperanzo Wilcox

The vision for the business is ambitious. The company aims to sell to wholesale retail distributors, as well as direct to consumers, restaurants, grocery stores, and farmer’s markets. They also hope to create more value-added products such as mushroom jerky, mushroom-based supplements and tinctures, dried mushrooms, and even vegan prepared foods such as mushroom patties. Wilcox is also exploring the world of mycelium — a network of fungal threads that can be used to make everything from faux leather to insulation. Another interesting aspect of the business is education and agritourism: Wilcox teaches mushroom cultivation classes and takes the fungi-curious on nature hikes.

As for entering the competition, it was hard work — but the juice was definitely worth the squeeze.

A mushroom grown by the PA Mushroom Co.

“It was rigorous,” says Wilcox. “One of the most helpful parts of that process was the coaching. Annie Hughes and John Siggins [from Ben Franklin Technology Partners] — they were both major attributes in the way they challenged me to convey the message. The experience overall was quite challenging, but it was also rewarding. It changed my life and it changed the direction of our company for the better.”

Co-winner Jeff Billett concurs. 

“It was a lot of work, I will say that,” he says of preparing for the Big Idea Contest. “I did a lot of practicing for the presentation.”

Billett has been a self-employed electrician since 1992, working mostly as a contractor at stone quarries, coal mines, oil and gas drilling rigs, and municipal sites. About 12 years ago, he heard about two electrocutions on drilling rigs. He started thinking about the grounding system and how it could be improved. 

“I took what I learned grounding in the mining industry and brought it to the drilling industry,” he explains. “The big difference between the two is that coal is a permanent site where the drilling industry is very mobile, so it created a new challenge to give them the same code compliance, while being extremely portable. It took about 12 years to get it together.”

Billett calls his invention a “grounding spider.” The product creates quick, safe electrical connections, protecting workers from electric shocks and static discharges, while also mitigating equipment interference. He has a design, a prototype, and a patent. The next step is proof-of-concept testing on location.  

This was Billett’s first pitch contest. The prize money will go towards that testing, which has been a huge success so far. The potential applications for the grounding spider are vast and the founder is excited about protecting workers at job sites across several industries.

Jeff Billett and his grounding spider

“In five years I hope to have it in production so that I can start to explore other markets,” he adds. “ I believe there’s a FEMA possibility, maybe mobile military operations. I can see possibly on-set motion pictures, maybe live outdoor entertainment — any place where you have a mobile setup that is using electricity to power things.”

Wilcox and Billett are exactly the sort of entrepreneurs the Big Idea Contest is designed to attract and showcase, but that’s easier said than done. 

“Every contest has its own challenges,” says Annie Hughes, Director of Outreach for Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern PA, and manager of the Big Idea Contests. “Reaching those applicants that fit the criteria is the hardest part. It’s really a marketing challenge. It’s an awareness challenge. For some applicants, they might be a little intimidated. If they’re a maker or they’re brand new to starting a business, sometimes they look at a program like this and think, ‘There’s no way I can do it.’ We don’t ever want someone to feel that way.”

This partnership with the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship has additional obstacles since parts of the region are very rural and don’t yet have access to broadband internet. Traditional media — print, radio, and tv — plays a big role in getting the word out. Case in point: Billett heard about the contest from his mother. She’s not online, so he assumes she read it in the paper. 

“We run Big Idea Contests to engage with new entrepreneurs, new startups, new companies — ones that haven’t interacted with Ben Franklin before,” explains Hughes. “We do this to draw people to our organization. It’s also a seed funding opportunity for startups. Some of those startups that apply might join one of our free accelerator programs or join our investment portfolio. We also want them to get more invested in the ecosystem, by that I mean all the different entities that work with startups and entrepreneurs to get them where they’re going.”

Reaching those applicants that fit the criteria is the hardest part. It’s really a marketing challenge. It’s an awareness challenge.Annie Hughes, Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern PA

Hughes is thrilled with the winners. Like the other finalists, they gave five-minute pitches complete with slides, presenting their business idea and making a case for why they should receive funding as if they were pitching to an investor. The judges used a list of criteria — How unique is the product? Is it desirable? Does it have potential to create jobs and have a broader economic impact? Is it scalable? — to select between one and three winners. 

“Some of the finalists were pretty seasoned at pitching and some were newer,” recalls Hughes. “I would say some of the people who did really, really well were newer at pitching. We were really impressed with how hard people worked at this process and how far they came in a short period of time.”

There are two more Big Idea Contests happening in the PA Wilds over the next two years as part of a three-year initiative funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission. The 2022 competition focused on counties in the I-80 Frontier landscape, including Centre, Clarion, Clearfield and Jefferson. Subsequent contests in 2023 and 2024 will accept applications from counties in the Allegheny National Forest landscape (Cameron, Elk, Forest, McKean and Warren Counties), as well as the Dark Skies and the Pine Creek Valley landscapes (Cameron, Clinton, Lycoming, Potter and Tioga)respectively. The organizers are taking plenty of lessons from this first event.

“The future contests include even more rural areas,” says Hughes. “We’re talking in depth about how to really bring our A-game with marketing to establish that reach, awareness, and credibility…What other partners in those regions should we talk to, to make them aware of the program and to encourage them to share it with their clients in their communities? So we’re doing a lot of deep groundwork really, really early so that we can be maximally effective.”

This story was created in partnership with The PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship. If you’re an entrepreneur in the PA Wilds developing or crafting a product, process or innovation related to the maker economy, outdoors and recreation, forest products, manufacturing, or technology, keep an eye out for details on future Big Idea Contests. 

LEAD IMAGE: The winners of the Big Idea Contest, from left to right: Esperanzo Wilcox, Jeff Billett, and John Brooks of Brinc Building Products Inc. (People’s Choice winner). 

LEE STABERT is editor in chief of Keystone Edge.

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