Baltimore-based startup ClearMask took home the $30,000 top prize Friday at Salisbury University’s biannual Ratcliffe Foundation Shore Hatchery entrepreneurship competition, hosted by Salisbury University.
ClearMask, the developers of a transparent surgical mask that helps improve communication with anyone wearing the mask, took home another pitch competition victory after a series of wins last spring.
“It’s validation,” Aaron Hsu, the company’s CEO, said about its victories. “It’s knowing that our plan makes sense, I think is the most important thing, that I can explain what we want to do and how we want to do it.”
Out of the 13 competitors, ClearMask joined three other companies in receiving $92,000 in prize money. Other winners included feminine care subscription box company Femly, herbal health product company Plum Dragon Herbs, and biotech company Algen Air.
The Philip E. and Carole R. Foundation established the Shore Hatchery program in 2013 with a $1 million gift, providing $200,000 a year in funding for entrepreneurship programs. A second $1 million gift last year extended the program’s funding through 2023.
The competition has become one of the region’s bigger pitch competitions, bringing in competitors from across the mid-Atlantic.
ClearMask has used its cash prizes from previous competitions to get patent protections and do some market research to grow its product. But it plans to use its winnings from the Shore Hatchery competition for manufacturing.
In the past the company has handmade its prototypes. Now, it is looking to see if they can be manufactured at a mass scale.
“Now we get to actually make it,” Hsu said. “The $30k is actually going to be helpful.”
The company is looking into expanding to other countries, like Brazil, Germany and Taiwan.
Hsu also wants to talk to different people to try to find more markets for the ClearMask. That was how he found out the mask could benefit cystic fibrosis patients. He learned that having a clear surgical mask when out in public could help remove some of the stigma these patients experience, just by being able to show their face and a smile.
Beyond the prize money, these type of competitions offer other resources to the participating startups. Entrants in the Shore Hatchery competition receive mentoring support from its board.
That mentoring can be helpful for refining a company’s product, Hsu said. But working with other startups can prove just as valuable.
“I would definitely say talking to other entrepreneurs has been extremely helpful, too,” Hsu said, “Kind of like a peer validation.”
They can offer each other advice that the mentors may not even be aware of. For example, Hsu said he has learned about which web-hosting companies are good and which may charge higher rates after the first year.