By Sarah Favot
LOWELL -- The Merrimack Valley Sandbox is moving another step forward in its goal of making Lowell and Lawrence start-up-friendly cities with the launch of its newest program "Sandbox IdeaLaunch."
Throughout the next six months, Sandbox will hold five pitch contests where people can pitch business ideas. In the fall, a small number of entrepreneurs will be selected to enter a business-plan competition with a prize pool of at least $50,000. Next year, the program will grow with more entrepreneurs selected and a prize pool of at least $100,000.
The Sandbox launched in December, 2010, with funding from The Deshpande Foundation. It is a collaboration of local businesses, education, government and nonprofit leaders who are working to foster a stream of small business that can help create new jobs in the area and address long-standing social issues with new approaches.
The city's Director of Economic Development Theresa Park and Merrimack Valley Sandbox Director of Entrepreneur Development David Parker announced the program launch Thursday at the Sandbox's Development Dialogue conference at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center.
"There are many, many, many, adults in this community who have ideas," said Parker, noting when he tells people what he does for a living, about half of them will pitch an idea to him.
"We want all those folks to feel like they can come forward and get some encouragement from the broader community and push those ideas forward and some of them will turn into great businesses."
More than 30 organizations in Lowell and Lawrence are participating in IdeaLaunch, which will work with the entrepreneurs to foster their ideas.
At yesterday's conference, Desh Deshpande, co-founder of The Deshpande Foundation, challenged the Merrimack Valley Sandbox to become a national leader.
"I think in the second phase of the Sandbox, now we have enough leadership in the Sandbox, they should actually start thinking about what they can do in a bigger way," said Deshpande. "As you start seeing promise, seeing something you can actually change, we should see ways to make that a part of the main agenda."
Deshpande, a high-tech entrepreneur and philanthropist, is president and chairman of Sparta Group LCC and chairman of Sycamore Networks and A123 Systems. He co-chairs a national council to support President Barack Obama's innovation and entrepreneurship strategy.
The Deshpande Foundation also founded sandbox initiatives in Canada and India.
Deshpande said sandboxes are about partnering businesses with nonprofit organizations in order to bring about social change.
"We need to build businesses that have compassion and we need to build compassionate organizations that are really speaking up for a different way of life for a different type of economy using the same tools and the same power as what the (business) people do on the other side," he said.
The Deshpande Foundation also founded the Merrimack Valley Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UML.
UML Executive Vice-Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney said, in the spirit of the Sandbox, the university will announce that it will expect that every student will graduate having worked on a project that contributed to society.
The first IdeaLaunch contest on May 30 is asking for ideas for technology, Web, software or smartphone applications.