It’s the moment everybody has been waiting for!
Here are the winners of the 2023 Startup Appalachia Pitch Competition:
1st Place, $10,000: TJ Rayhill, Bluegrass Cricket
2nd Place, $3,500: Xiled Inc., Payton Keathley
3rd Place, $1,500: Payton May, Tunezle
Crowd Favorite, $500: Elijah Jensen, Blackbox Energy Systems
Congratulations to all of the participants!
You can watch the 2023 Startup Appalachia Pitch Competition here:
Learn more about the Winners & Finalists
Our SOAR Innovation team received nearly 30 applications from 14 counties, but only seven finalists were chosen for this competition.
TJ Rayhill, Bluegrass Crickets
TJ is passionate about going against the crowd (I mean, just check out his rainbow mohawk). Opening a bookstore at 19-year-old and launching a food truck, a gift shop, and a restaurant has led down a path to launching Bluegrass Crickets, Kentucky’s First Commercial Cricket Farm.
Bluegrass Crickets raises organic crickets for the bait and feed industry and looks soon to produce crickets for human consumption.
Payton Keathley, Xiled Inc.
Payton has been gaming since the age of five, and has played a role in the gaming community scene since 2008. After joining his first community, he found himself helping at an operations level at a very young age.
He founded Xiled Gaming Network under Xiled Inc. in 2010, and since, the Xiled brand(s) have become beloved and recognized across the globe; fostering a safe, educating, and thrilling environment for 200,000+ gamers since their inception. Retention has long been an issue with clans and communities, and clanhub is a long-awaited solution that Payton dreams to provide.
Since the birth of the internet, gamers have been gathering in organized groups referred to as Clans. This is for many reasons, but most importantly, comradery. Gaming is better with friends in general, and organizations like Xiled help assist aspiring clans to reach more potential members, partnerships, brand deals, and opportunities.
Coming from Pikeville, Kentucky, there were little to no opportunity to follow Payton’s passion for gaming locally, and zero tools available for establishing an organized gaming group. The Xiled Inc. team and Payton strive to deliver opportunities to all players in the gaming community through cutting-edge technology, exciting platforms, and the creation of virtual environments such as Clanhub.gg that make Clan Management a breeze.
Payton May, Tunezle
Payton May is an Appalachian Entrepreneur with business experience in software, coffee roasting and cold brew, agriculture, and vacation rentals. He utilizes his background in architecture and urban planning and his passion for design and creativity, to fuel his entrepreneurial endeavors.
Also in the Tunezle team is Eric Shockey, who is a licensed architect and works on a variety of project types for Pikeville-based engineering firm Jigsaw Enterprises, including architecture, land development, master planning, and various entrepreneurial ventures. He has work experience in Eastern Kentucky, Lexington, and Louisville, and received his education at the University of Kentucky and the University of Virginia, also with a focus on urban planning.
Tunezle is a melody guessing game that plays much like wordle. It’s simple fun and available via the browser on desktop and mobile devices as well as via mobile apps. Any one with a love for music and gaming is a potential player. Much like wordle our initial goal will be to build a user base encourage daily play via social sharing scores and a leaderboard. Similarly to wordles acquisition by the New York Times our exit strategy will be to target a buyer in the music industry i.e Spotify, Apple Music, sound cloud etc – companies with existing subscription models who want to acquire more potential users and add our game to their product suites.
Elijah Jensen, Blackbox Energy Systems
BlackBox Energy Systems are working to produce the world’s best energy technology. They have designed lightweight, powerful motors and energy generation technology.
They are also a startup research and development company focusing on clean, efficient energy production and storage. Formed to market and manufacture this research, starting with their motor and micro-turbine technology.
Their team brings professional and educational knowledge of physics, mechanical, electrical, and software engineering, manufacturing, and marketing. They seek to harness their combined expertise to improve the environment with efficient, sustainable energy technologies.
They plan to begin production for their first customers later this 2023 year.
Kyle Turner, 1620 Distilling
Kyle Tuner is a 2001 Graduate of the University of Pikeville. Turner then graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Law in 2004. Tuner then spent over 15 years as Vice President of Tax for several large multinational companies. He currently owns and operates several businesses.
1620 Distilling is one of Eastern Kentucky’s most-awarded bourbon. Located in Prestonsburg, Ky. where they have a tasting room and what will soon be a complete distillery.
Brayden Harris, Fragaria
Brayden Harris is a driven 16-year-old residing in Wolfe County. His passions extend to philosophy, corporate finance, business, botany, horticulture, and health.
Looking ahead, he envisions a future dedicated to venture capitalism, with a special focus on revitalizing the economy of Eastern Kentucky.
Beyond his professional ambitions, his vision encompasses personal fulfillment. As he continue his journey, he dreams of raising a family within the vibrant and flourishing environment of Eastern Kentucky. By combining both his passion for community, business, and sustainable practices, he is driven to create a brighter future not only for himself, but for generations to come.
Fragaria is a sustainable farming venture that employs advanced hydroponic techniques to grow high-quality, chemical free fruits and vegetables in a controlled indoor farm and lab.
Their focus on innovation and sustainability drives our mission to produce superior produce. Fragaria emphasizes strategic funding allocation to enhance farming facilities, increase production capacity, and improve distribution.
Nathan Little, Queen City Streams
Nathan Lyttle is a media professional from Eastern Kentucky. He spent several years working as the Digital Executive Producer at WYMT before eventually moving into education, teaching Eastern Kentucky students about media. As the owner of Queen City Streams (QCS), he brings his media expertise to his passion for video games, providing expertly produced programming for viewers everywhere.
QCS started in 2019 as a fundraiser for a school esports team but has grown into a thriving esports organization. QCS hosts and broadcasts both online and in-person esports events featuring the best players in the region and attracting talent and viewers from all over the world.
Finalists competed on Thursday, June 15, at Morehead State University at 6 p.m. in the Adron Doran University Center (ADUC).
The following four judges helped decide the winners for this years pitch competition.
Andrew Jones is the new Northeast Region president for Community Trust Bank. Jones graduated from the University of Kentucky with a degree in Business Administration and went on to earn a MBA from Morehead State University. He is also a graduate of the American Banker’s Association National Commercial Lending School held at the University of Oklahoma and the Graduate School of Banking held at Louisiana State University.
He was a member of the Board of Directors of Kings Daughters Health Foundation and of the Ashland Alliance Foundation, and is past president of the Bellefonte Country Club and the Lions Club, and a past member of Community Leadership Development and Leadership Tri State.
In 2002, Jones was named by the Small Business Association as Business Advocate of the Year.
Janet Ratliff started working at MSU in August 1992. She has taught courses in marketing, economics, finance, management and entrepreneurship. She works throughout Morehead State University’s service region and the State of Kentucky as a consultant, professional development provider, and program provider to teachers and students (P-12) in economics, personal finance, and entrepreneurship. Through Ratliff’s work with the Booth Entrepreneurship Center, “Building Entrepreneurial Capacity for the Future” a cooperative project with Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative is in its eighth year. This project has provided students in middle and high schools in Southeastern Kentucky with an opportunity not only to learn but actually apply entrepreneurial skills by creating businesses for regional competition for cash awards. To date, approximately 4,040 students have participated.
Rachel Bowling joined the Kentucky SBDC in Morehead in January of 2019. Before coming to the SBDC Rachel had a successful career in the banking industry. A graduate of West Carter High School, Rachel continued her education graduating from Alice Lloyd College in 2010 and obtained her MBA from Midway University in 2015.
With roots richly woven in Eastern Kentucky, Rachel looks forward to assisting small business owners throughout Eastern Kentucky and hopes to better her community and the people in it. Rachel is a Carter County Native, residing in Olive Hill with her Husband Robert and two son’s Corbin and Turner. She is very active in First Baptist Church of Olive Hill and in various community organizations.
Jason Rainey serves as Executive Director for the Mt. Sterling Industrial Authority & Chamber of Commerce. Previously he served as Senior Policy Advisor for the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development for Governor’s Andy Beshear & Matt Bevin. During his time at the Cabinet, Kentucky experienced record setting economic growth, including over $22 billion in new investment and creation of over 59,000 new jobs. He also served as an appointee during President Obama’s administration as part of the American Recovery Reinvestment Act where his team deployed over $86 million dollars to Kentucky rural based businesses. In addition to being the founder and owner of his own entrepreneurial ventures, Mr. Rainey enjoys teaching entrepreneurship and management at the University of Kentucky Gatton College of Business & Economics as a part-time faculty member.
Everyone’s a Winner
While there are three cash winners, every Startup Appalachia Pitch Competition applicant will receive coaching from SOAR’s Business and Innovation team.
And it doesn’t end there.
Our team members, appropriately called Champions, begin to identify challenges. Just as important, we identify and seize opportunities.
- Coaching and Mentoring
- Direct Services such as:
- Email and Digital Marketing
- Business Planning
- Referrals to Technical Assistance Providers and their subject-matter experts
We’re with every applicant from when you land and launch — and beyond!
Last year, Dakota Hoskins, creator and owner of Safari Solutions, took home a $10,000 grand prize. As a car wash technology startup, Hoskins developed a unique and affordable barcode system for operators to implement to increase profits and marketing reach. Since the pitch, Dakota has participated in the AWESOME Inc 5 Across Pitch Competition and represented Eastern Kentucky at the Small Towns, Big Ideas Virtual Pitch Competition presented by CORI.
You can watch the entire 2022 Startup Appalachia Pitch Competition HERE.
Our Startup Appalachia Pitch Competition winner for 2021 was Walleye Solutions. This Lincoln County startup provides aesthetically pleasing cable pass-through wall ports that allow cords, cables, and plugs to pass freely through a wall. Owner, Billy Brown, was able to invest his winnings into equipment needed for in-house manufacturing of his product, which helped lower his overall product cost. Their standard products can be found on their website, Walmart, and Amazon.
You can watch the entire 2021 Startup Appalachia Pitch Competition HERE.
Our 2020 winner was Tipper Valley Farms. The Rowan County Appalachian Proud farm produces all-natural products with their free-range goat’s milk. They combine this with selected oils and formulations with sensitive skin in mind and contain no unnecessary, harmful, or harsh chemicals, additives, preservatives, or dyes. Check out their online store HERE.
In 2019, Tree of the Field claimed first place in our first-ever Startup Appalachia Pitch Competition. The Madison County-based Agritech business continues to grow, recently launching a bourbon-scented Skeeterlog. You don’t have to look far to find their Skeeterlog and handmade chimineas. If you do, no worries. They have an online store.
Connecting to Capital
SOAR’s team works with startups and existing businesses through the support of KY Innovation. Our approach is personal and direct, providing clients with resources to launch or scale an existing business.
This is done through a variety of direct services.
- Business Planning
- Website Development
- E-Commerce Implementation
- Digital Media Services
- Google Services
- Systems for Success
While finalists pitch for a cash prize, we work to create additional funding opportunities for each business.
For more information
Got questions? Contact Sabrina McWhorter, Director of Business and Innovation, at email@example.com.