A pharmaceutical company tackling the global public health issue of rising street-dog populations has won the  Top Gun Showcase event and its $10,000 prize, while a company developing hardware to help legal cannabis cultivators better manage their indoor growing facilities won a secondary award given to the best tech company.

The pitch competition, which took place Wednesday night at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, is the capstone event of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development’s Top Gun startup accelerator program. The Maine Technology Institute provides the $10,000 first prize.

Michael Royals, founder and CEO of Thrivant Health, holding the $10,000 check after winning the Top Gun Showcase event on June 7, 2017.

The winner, Thrivant Health, is a Portland-based company that has developed a humane, non-invasive sterilization method for male and female dogs that will enable public health officials to more easily and efficiently control feral dog populations.

There are 500 million dogs “living, breeding, and dying on the streets,” Michael Royals, Thrivant Health’s co-founder and CEO, said in his pitch. These feral dogs degrade public health and contribute to poverty in the areas where their populations can’t be managed effectively, he said. He raised human rabies as the perfect example. The vast majority of the human rabies—an estimated 99%, in fact— is tranmitted by street dogs, which costs $8.6 billion in global economic losses annually, he said.

“Our focus is on dogs because they’re intertwined with humans on every corner of the planet,” said Royals. “And with a growing epidemic of street animals, not only is there a compelling business case for doing something about it, but the product I’m about to share with you could be one of the great innovations in animal welfare.”

Replacing capture-and-kill

Surgery to prevent unwanted animal population growth is a luxury of wealthy nations, Royals said, but 84% of the world’s countries don’t have access to companion animal medicine or surgery, so they struggle with street dog populations. Their only method for population control is capture-and-kill, said Royals.

“That’s inhumane, socially unpopular, and does nothing for the sustainable control of these populations,” he said. “Thrivant health is developing an urgently needed third option.”

The drug, developed over the past decade thanks to $1.5 million in research grants, is called Allay and can be injected into a dog (though the company will tailor the drug for other animals, including cats) with a syringe, which means high-volume, high-coverage population control is feasible in a way that surgical sterilization is not.

Thrivant Health is currently entering an estimated four-year development phase that will include more safety studies, navigating the regulatory process, and ultimately receiving approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Royals said he’s already invested $50,000 of his own money in the endeavor, coupled with $30,000 in grants from the Maine Technology Institute. He estimates it will take an additional $10 million to get the drug to market, beginning with a $1 million seed round he’s currently raising.

If the product reaches the market, Royals projects revenue will reach $17.5 million by 2023 before quickly increasing to $150 million by 2026. He projects EBITDA during those same time periods would rise from roughly $9.4 million to $113.4 million.

Royals, a veterinarian by training, has 25 years of experience in international public health and has shepherded two previous medical device startups to market. He’s worked in more than 60 countries where dog overpopulation is a real concern.

Asked what makes him so sure there’s a market for Thrivant Health’s solution, Royals was confident.

“I’ve been on a World Health Organization expert working group on rabies and interacted with public health agencies and so I understand the magnitude of the problem,” he said. “I floated this concept several years back and was overwhelmed with the response from public health managers wanting a solution like this. So we’re quite confident in the market .”

His co-founder, Dr. Terry Nett, a professor of reproductive physiology at Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, is the chief scientist behind the development of Allay.

Royals and his wife actually moved from Colorado to the Portland area last year, partly because his wife had an opportunity to do her residency in anesthesiology at Maine Medical Center, and partly because he was attracted by Portland’s cluster of pet health companies, including Idexx, Vets First Choice, and Putney. In fact, Royals has already been in touch with former employees of Putney, a Portland-based pet pharmaceutical company acquired last year by a U.K.-based company, about future employment opportunities.

I spoke with Royals after the night’s event.

“It’s an affirmation that we’re on the right track,” he said of winning the Top Gun pitch competition. “And it’s useful visibility in the Maine business community and beyond. I’m on the front end of raising a seed round, so to begin with this can only help in the process.”

Des Fitzgerald, Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Maine Venture Fund, who served as one of the judges at the Top Gun event, was impressed by Thrivant Health’s global market potential and scalability.

“The potential for them to scale is enormous,” Fitzgerald said after the event. “They have a long road ahead of them and they know that, but there’s lots of upside.”

Grojo also stands out in competitive field

Eight founders, two from each of four regional cohorts in the Top Gun accelerator, pitched their startups at Wednesday night’s event. The eight finalists were chosen from a field of 38 startups that participated in the accelerator program.

In his opening remarks, Tom Rainey, the new executive director of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, said he was impressed by the startup founders that worked through the accelerator program.

“As a newcomer this year, it’s been truly inspiring to see this level of creativity, innovation, entrepreneurial courage, and community spirit,” Rainey said.

A strong field didn’t make it easy for the judges to pick the winner.

“We were really impressed,” Fitzgerald said. “It was nice to see such strong competition.”

Beside Thrivant Health, the other winner on Wednesday night was Grojo, a Turner-based company that has developed an Internet-connected hardware device that helps legal cannabis cultivators manage and monitor their indoor growing facilities. It won the Microsoft BizSpark award, which comes with $120,000 in credit to use Microsoft’s cloud computing platform. Grojo’s founders are CEO Aaron Hasting, COO Jared Pinkham, and CTO Brandon Bergman.

The other six startups that pitched Wednesday night were:

  • Branding Compass, a web-based, DIY application that helps small business owners develop their own unique brands and logos. It is the brainchild of Emily Brackett, who runs Portland-based branding and web development agency, Visible Logic.
  • cityLIFE nature kits, an Orono-based company that creates nature-inspired educational activity kits for children. Deanna Fahey and Mary Ellen McAlester are the co-founders.
  • GirlZone Fitness, founded by Melissa Ann Smith and based in Bangor, is a company that offers girls-only fitness and self-esteem classes that encourage physical fitness while cultivating a healthy self-image for young and teen girls.
  • SofiaFima, a luxury leather handbag designer founded by Dianna Pozdniakov.

Top Gun’s 2017 class was the largest in the accelerator program’s eight-year history. That was due largely to the addition of Lewiston/Auburn as its fourth regional cohort. When Top Gun began in 2009, it was based solely in Portland, which limited the accessibility for entrepreneurs in other parts of the state. Since then the program has added locations in Bangor and in Rockland. This was the first year a cohort convened in Lewiston/Auburn.