Women entrepreneurs take the prize in Berkshire grant competition

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PITTSFIELD — While working as a physical therapist, Brittany Cappiello noticed a medical problem that her female clients were reluctant to talk about.

It revolved around pelvic functions, including incontinence. Cappiello said she became frustrated because women were waiting as long as eight years for treatment because they didn't know the problem had a solution.

"Many were suffering in silence," she said, "thinking they were the only ones with pelvic problems."

With help from three other women, Cappiello developed "My Core Floor," a multifaceted resource for women with pelvic floor dysfunction.

At Berkshire Medical Center on Thursday, a panel of three judges chose "My Core Floor" as the best of four health-related proposals in the Berkshire Health Technology Challenge, sponsored by North Adams-based business incubator Lever.

The prize? My Core Floor's four principals — Cappiello, Robin Dufour, Nicole Armbrust and Andrea Wasylow — received $25,000 in seed money to further develop their idea, and receive free additional assistance from Lever for four months. Cappiello said the group intends to use the seed money on marketing.

"It's overwhelming," said Cappiello, who began developing her idea in 2014. "I'm thrilled because I'm passionate about what I do. I want to help more women, and this is going to give me the ability to do that."

This was the third challenge competition sponsored by Lever, which was founded in 2014 to develop a robust entrepreneurial system in the Berkshires. The business incubator is planning to award $150,000 in seed grants, including six $25,000 grants for winners of the challenge programs, for manufacturing and health startups in the Berkshires. The challenges are paid for by $450,000 in funding Lever received from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

ThriveText, an SMS-based platform to promote mental fitness on college campuses, developed by Williams College psychiatrist Dr. Lara Aillon-Sohl, was chosen as the runner up in Thursday's contest. The two other finalists were ClearView, for a proposal to build a medical model for improving tracheostomy management by two medical professionals at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut; and 21st Century Biotech, for the development of a bandage that can heal wounds faster, by a quartet of University of Massachusetts-Amherst students.

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The four finalists were selected in January from an initial pool of 150 entrants and have spent the last five months preparing with Lever personnel for Thursday's event.

"Today is the culmination of a lot of hard work and instruction," said Brent Filson, Lever's director of operations and programming. "Each finalist had one-on-one mentoring."

The four finalists spent 10 minutes pitching their idea, before fielding a few questions from the judges. Lever's goal in this challenge was to award funding to a health technology startup with the potential to address important needs in health care and that has the potential to grow quickly and create jobs.

Judge Chris Sims of Amherst, a partner at venture capital firm The Alchemy Fund, said My Core Floor filled those requirements.

"They're making a big impact on a huge problem," Sims said. "And that's actually rarer even though it sounds simple. As a venture investor, we see a lot of things that are either going after a relatively small market and doing it well, or going after something big and expansive and missing it.

"It's rare to see those two things come together," he said.

He said the four women's energy and enthusiasm for their idea was also a plus.

"It makes you think that no one at this stage ever has the road map all figured out, and the ones that think they do are wrong." Sims said. "So the bet comes down to, 'Do you bet this team can get there?' And, I like the bet."

Business Editor Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6224.


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