NEW PORT RICHEY — The owners of Veterans Alternative Therapy Center stood on a wooden stage in front of a panel of judges.
As contestants in the inaugural SMARTstart Challenge, a Shark Tank-style pitch competition that began in November, Brian Anderson and Janel Norton had 10 minutes to prove that Veterans Alternative Therapy, which provides alternative therapy for veterans, is a viable business worthy of financial support.
After the judges watched five finalists vie for the top prize, Anderson, 32, and Norton, 48, emerged as the winner.
"Both Janel and I are combat veterans. She was a combat camerawoman, and I was a Green Beret in the Army. She served in Bosnia, and I served in Iraq and Afghanistan," Anderson said. "We both saw our fair share of traumas."
Their business, which has partnered with the Chris T. Sullivan Foundation for tax-exempt status, served its first clients this week and was established in response to a problem: "What we have in place for our warriors after combat isn't working," Anderson said.
The Veterans Alternative Therapy Center, based in Holiday, will provide fitness, accelerated resolution therapy and integrative restoration yoga nidra, which is a style of guided meditation.
"We are helping our warriors focus on post-traumatic growth," Anderson said. "We're replenishing camaraderie. We're training the mind, body and spirit to help our warriors reintegrate to be the leaders they've been trained to be."
To do that, veterans need help to heal "the invisible wounds of war," said Norton, a former Tampa Bay Times photojournalist who also co-owns Trinity Yoga. "I'm so glad (the judges) recognized the need. This is for the veterans. It's all for them."
Veterans Alternative Therapy's services will be free for veterans. The University of South Florida is providing the accelerated resolution therapy, and private donors and organizations are helping to cover the costs of the center's other services.
The SMARTstart Challenge, which concluded last week, sparked what Krista Covey wants to turn into a series.
"Hopefully this is the first of many (SMARTstart Challenges)," said Covey, the Pasco Economic Development Council's director of the SMARTstart Business Incubator Program and manager of economic development. She said the next SMARTstart Challenge probably will take place in the fall.
The contest, which was sponsored by the Pasco EDC, the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce, the New Port Richey Economic Development Department and SCORE, started with about 20 applicants, Covey said. Eight were selected to present five-minute pitches last month, and, of those, judges selected the five finalists.
Mark Pinson pitched Thank You Post, an app that consumers can use to write positive reviews of businesses and post them online. Thomas Giella Jr. pitched Techsoft Academy, a school that offers courses in Quickbooks, WordPress and Google Apps. Greg Smith spoke about Savealator, an inventory and information management app. Cavi Velasquez talked about Slide Creation, a visual design consulting firm. Anderson and Norton sold the judges on Veterans Alternative Therapy.
"Being able to tout the entrepreneurs we've got here is really important for Pasco County," said Covey.
And the prizes, she said, are important for the winners.
Giella, who won third place, will receive $1,000. Smith, who won second place, will receive $2,000. For first place, Anderson and Norton will receive $5,000, plus a six-month membership to SMARTstart, which includes office space at the SMARTstart incubator in New Port Richey.
"A little capital can go a long way," Covey said.
And, even the participants who didn't place gained something, she said.
"Feedback is extremely important," she said. "You don't know what you don't know."
Contact Arleen Spenceley at (727) 869-6235 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @ArleenSpenceley.