Intrapreneurial chops tested in coronavirus-focused pitch competition

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Unprecedented times call for unprecedented creativity. That's the mindset of an intrapreneur, anyway.

An intrapreneur — that's different from an entrepreneur — employs innovation to adapt what already exists in order to solve a brand-new problem, said Jeffrey Thomas, executive director of Lever, a North Adams-based entrepreneurial-support company.

Eleven Massachusetts-based manufacturers and businesses, including one Pittsfield company, had the opportunity to show off their intrapreneurial thinking Friday afternoon, during a coronavirus-focused pitch competition that took place via Zoom.

The companies' challenge was to impress three judges with an innovative plan to pivot their manufacturing operations to produce and sell nonmedical face masks. The competitors had five weeks to develop their plan under the guidance of Lever's intrapreneur curriculum. The grand prize was $25,000.

After nearly three hours of pitches and tough questions, Mike Kennealy, the Massachusetts secretary of Housing and Economic Development, joined the call to announce the first runner-up and grand-prize winner.

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The grand prize went to Bethany Salvon and Randy Kalp, co-owners of Speakeasy Travel Supply based in Centerville. Since the start of the pandemic, Speakeasy produces reusable cotton face masks handcrafted in Massachusetts. The company sells the masks on its website and donates a large number to vulnerable groups, such as those in hospitals and members of the Navajo Nation.

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Second place went to Diana Coluntino, the director of Fashion Makerspace in the Fabric Discovery Center at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. Coluntino was representing a startup based in UML's Innovation Hub.

"Keep innovating," Kennealy told the competitors. "This crisis is not over."

Also in the competition was Josh Levin of LympheDIVAS, a Pittsfield company that sells compression apparel. Levin's idea was to sell fashionable patterned face masks with an elastic loop that fastens behind the head, rather than around the ears.

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Friday's competition was the first of five in a wider series called the Massachusetts COVID-19 Intrapreneur Challenge. The program is being led by Lever and sponsored by the MassTech Collaborative and the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership, in an effort to encourage innovative companies to adapt to meet the emerging challenges posed by the pandemic.

The judges of Friday's competition were Leslie Greis, co-owner of Kinefac Corp. in Worcester; Pia Kumar, the chief strategy officer of Universal Plastics in Holyoke; and Rich Rowe, the former senior executive and president of Crane Currency in Boston.

The second competition challenges intrapreneurs to come up with innovative ways to help businesses and other organizations begin safely reopening their operations to the public. The final pitch competition will take place Aug. 21.

Caroline White can be reached at cwhite@berkshireeagle.com or at 563-513-1065.


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