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The Blackstone LaunchPad program is open to all majors and helps thrust business ideas like Gaines' into reality. "Basically, they have expertise on a volunteer basis to cover all these bases, which combine to kind of comprise entrepreneurship, as I understand it," Gaines said. "It's just completely invaluable."

At first, George Gaines thought he'd sell the backcountry skis made with local wood for some $700.

Then, the Ph.D. student at the University of Montana took his business idea for Chilton Skis to a competition at UM.

He and his partner not only tied for first place in the elevator pitch category in a statewide competition – earning $1,750 – they won third place and $5,000 for their business idea.

The judges also gave him some advice. Gaines has a background in building "museum quality furniture" and he was using that expertise to create skis. The experts believed people would appreciate the fine work and be willing to pay for it.

"You need to be charging three times more for the pair than you're charging," he said the judges told him.

As a doctoral student and researcher in the College of Forestry and Conservation with at least one other business idea, Gaines isn't in a hurry to launch this particular business. He has milestones he's working on, but he doesn't have a set timeline.

However, his connection with the Blackstone LaunchPad at UM has ensured he has a refined plan and a cadre of professionals in the community offering free expertise to help him get off the ground when he's ready.

There, LaunchPad director Paul Gladen helped him articulate his "value proposition."

"The idea is to combine locally sourced and salvaged natural materials with industry standard composite materials to make an environmentally sustainable ski that doesn't sacrifice performance characteristics and that we're able to keep light weight," he said.

His original idea was to make skis built with local wood that were available to as many people as possible – "the deadbeat undergraduate college students who tend to be backcountry skiers. I say that endearingly."

And he relates since he himself is a backcountry skier and student. Now that the judges have weighed in on his business plan, though, he'll have to find different buyers.

Gaines said he hasn't wrapped his head around that notion yet, but it was the most resounding advice he received.

"I'll come to understand it once I see people buying them," Gaines said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.