LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Entrepreneurs sometimes ask, what's your elevator pitch? If by chance you shared an elevator with some vital investor, how would you push your big idea in just a few seconds? In New Mexico, people talk of the ski-lift pitch. And it's become a competition. Here's Megan Kamerick of our member station KUNM.
MEGAN KAMERICK, BYLINE: In northern New Mexico's Toas Ski Valley, the networking starts early over blue-corn pancakes and coffee. But the real pitching begins as folks head out to the nearby ski lift, where entrepreneurs and potential investors ride side-by-side up the mountain.
KAMERICK: Investor Robbie Vitrano from New Orleans is paired with Ayla Bystrom-Williams from Honeymoon Brewing in Santa Fe. Her business makes beer using the fermented beverage kombucha.
AYLA BYSTROM-WILLIAMS: I wasn't sure how this was all going to go, you know? It's different.
ROBBIE VITRANO: We're kind of riding in the same place, I mean, what's beautiful about it.
KAMERICK: Throughout the 10-minute ride, Vitrano offers advice and asks questions.
VITRANO: How are you going out and bringing the product to that customer, experiencing what they like, what's that look like for you?
BYSTROM-WILLIAMS: Right now it's pretty awful and terrifying, what we're doing.
KAMERICK: After the lift reaches the top, Vitrano and Bystrom-Williams ski off for a new round of pitching. The winner gets a $10,000 prize. But even if they don't win, these entrepreneurs get several chances to make connections and refine their pitches. And they've got a captive audience as they glide high above glistening slopes and snow-laden pine trees.
VITRANO: Riding up on a chair lift with someone is cathartic. It's like barring your soul.
KAMERICK: Gary Oppedahl is the economic development director for the city of Albuquerque. He's also an entrepreneur and says New Mexico has a rich history of innovation and ideas. But it's not always so good at turning those ideas into companies that create jobs.
GARY OPPEDAHL: That is the key to this. What we're doing is we're getting people here who would never come to New Mexico and look at investing in companies otherwise.
KAMERICK: New Mexico has struggled mightily to emerge from the recession. As government spending was curtailed and oil and gas prices plummeted, the need to diversify has become more critical. People like Oppedahl and ABQid, the business accelerator that created the ski-lift pitch, see entrepreneurship as one way to do that.
OPPEDAHL: This is a cool thing that does emphasize our quirky. And that quirkiness is huge, and it's what people look for who are investors.
KAMERICK: After a morning of hearing pitches on ski lifts, the judges whittle a dozen entrepreneurs down to three finalists, a location-based app, a pop-up supper club, and tiny semi-conductors. All three make a more traditional pitch for the final prize, just like other business pitch competitions, except they're in a ski boots and Gore-Tex.
The big reveal comes at the end of the day. At the bottom of the mountain, everyone gathers for pretzels and beer.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Our winner of the second annual ski-lift pitch contest is, UbiQD.
KAMERICK: That's short for Ubiquitous Quantum Dots, tiny semi-conductors used in phones, tablets and TV displays.
HUNTER MCDANIEL: They're super cool. I mean, I could talk about quantum dots all night if you want.
KAMERICK: Hunter McDaniel licensed the technology from MIT and Los Alamos National Laboratory. The lab is one of the biggest economic forces in New Mexico. Ubiqd is trying to leverage that federal investment to build more private sector jobs. The $10,000 prize will help.
MCDANIEL: We've got to pay salaries (laughter). There's a lot of things that we need to be spending money on. But this'll make a difference for sure.
KAMERICK: It's a scenario the ski-lift pitch organizers hope will become more common in New Mexico, tapping the state's existing strengths, like its national laboratories and mountains, to lift its economy. For NPR News, I'm Megan Kamerick in Toas, N.M.
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