Young Lakeland entrepreneur turns heads at Pitch competition
Michaela Heling is a savvy young entrepreneur, but even she couldn’t have predicted her remarkable first year at Lakeland University.
Heling, a business administration major, recently turned heads by finishing second at The Pitch, a startup business pitch competition among college students in Northeast Wisconsin that was held at Fox Cities Stadium in Appleton, Wis.
She secured one of the two at-large bids in a field of 10 startups from students at schools who are regulars in this annual competition. She’s the first Lakeland student to ever compete, and her second-place finish generated a buzz.
“I was surprised,” said Heling, a Sheboygan native and Sheboygan South High School graduate. “I don’t think anyone expected that to happen, especially with well-established universities there and this being one of the first competitions I have done.”
Heling’s startup is Protean Footwear, a softball/baseball shoe with interchangeable metal, molded and turf soles. Heling has played softball most of her life, and, like her fellow players, has always carried multiple pairs of shoes with different cleats so she’s ready for any playing conditions.
“I realized the struggles athletes have putting all their equipment into bags and possibly not being prepared for a game,” she said.
Heling’s startup, which is already patent pending, saves space and weight in equipment bags and ensures that athletes are prepared for any kind of turf or weather. It also saves money, she said, since her cleats will be less expensive than purchasing three pairs.
“Michaela's idea is an innovative product that has a clear pathway to market that she can explore,” said Stephanie Hoskins, Lakeland’s Herbert Kohler & Frank Jacobson Chair of Business & Entrepreneurship. “Her initial target market – softball players – is one that she is very familiar with, so that definitely helps.”
Protean Footwear was born in the fall in the Intro to Business course taught by Hoskins, who then invited Heling to continue work on the product and develop her pitch this spring in PRO 450, an internship course for entrepreneurial students to work directly with Hoskins to develop a product idea and bring it to market.
Hoskins, a veteran entrepreneur, said Heling’s practical idea and access to the course gave her a competitive advantage.
“One of the factors contributing to her success and ability to accomplish so much so quickly is the course and the fact that all of that progress counts towards her grade and is incorporated into the projects assigned,” Hoskins said. “Even the application to the pitch competition counted as an assignment toward her weekly hours.
“Several students who were part of the competition made comments about not having the time to do more customer discovery, complete a prototype, look into the market size or to address other early-stage steps.”
Heling launched her product website in January and has 17 people on a waitlist for the product. She launched social media pages on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn in March. She has started work on a 3-dimensional prototype, product cost and finding a manufacturer.
A motivated student who came to Lakeland with 18 credits thanks to dual-credit courses at South, Heling enrolled at Lakeland because of the business program and the numerous areas of emphasis available.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Heling said. “It’s interesting to see all the steps that must be taken to get to market. I have a lot of respect for those companies who do bring a product to market.
“This experience also helps reinforce everything I’ve been learning in the classroom in marketing, accounting and other business concepts. It helps put them in practice right away.”
Heling’s success is part of the continued evolution of Lakeland’s entrepreneurial focus.
Heling is the second of Hoskins’ students to successfully develop and pitch a product. In the fall, freshman Ashton Wallace was one of 49 entries to advance to the semifinal round of the 20th annual Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest.
Hoskins is developing an Intro to Entrepreneurship course and an entrepreneurship emphasis. In her role leading Jake’s, A Lakeland Community, students have access to entrepreneurial programming throughout the year - pitch competitions, grants, accelerators, networking events, etc.
“Now that we have the courses and opportunities in place to support their efforts, I expect we will see an explosion of growth in student entrepreneurship,” Hoskins said. “Lakeland is a very innovative place that can move quickly to meet the needs of students.
“As we identify the students on-campus who are interested in pursuing entrepreneurship, we'll be able to highlight their successes and elevate their ideas so prospective students will be able to recognize the opportunities available at Lakeland. Students can reach out to me at any time for help on their business ideas.”
Heling has benefitted from that guidance firsthand.
“Working with her is a lot of fun,” Heling said. “She has a lot of good connections. It’s been helpful to have her experience because she’s been through the same pathway.”
Long term, Heling hopes to work in human resources for a company someday but is excited to see what’s next for Protean Footwear.
“I hope to make it into a bigger company, develop more connections where we can sell and eventually make it into big box companies,” Heling said.