Veterans reach for their dreams in 'Shark Tank' spinoff contest

"You've got to trust your gut and your instinct," said judge and entrepreneur Rebecca Gray, a 30-year member of the Air Force at the event in Philadelphia on Monday night.
Finalist Candace Sparks, 41, a mom of three from Tampa, Florida and a U.S. Air Force veteran, pitched Baby Bedside, an all-in-one changing station and insulated diaper bag at a 'Shark Tank' spinoff event on Monday night in Philadelphia.
Finalist Candace Sparks, 41, a mom of three from Tampa, Florida and a U.S. Air Force veteran, pitched Baby Bedside, an all-in-one changing station and insulated diaper bag at a 'Shark Tank' spinoff event on Monday night in Philadelphia.Jaci Downs Photography

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By Diane Herbst

For the last seven years, Arthur Toole and his wife Danette, both Army veterans, had a dream of creating an all-natural pain product. The idea was born from their mutual struggles with aching knees and backs that found no relief from doctors or standard pain treatments.

"We had a lot of people who told us this is a waste of time, but we believed in it and we believed that what we were doing was right, and it was going to help people," said Arthur, 41, of Germantown, Maryland of their topical pain product, MegRelief, launched in March.

A panel of judges in a version of the popular TV show “Shark Tank” agreed and awarded the Tooles a $50,000 prize for winning the 7th annual Veteran Shark Tank event at the Fitler Club in Philadelphia Monday night. Comcast NBCUniversal was the event's presenting sponsor.

"Keep going, keep going," said Toole to other aspiring entrepreneurs after taking to the stage to pitch MegRelief — a product made from nutmeg oil infused with rosemary, peppermint and sweet almond oil. The recipe was honed from his wife's family remedy in her native Grenada. "At the end of the day, entrepreneurship is about serving others," he added. "And if you believe in what you're serving, you have to keep going. Opportunities will come."

Veteran 'Shark Tank' winner Arthur Toole at the event in Philadelphia on Monday night.Jaci Downs Photography

Four other finalists—all veterans — were picked from across the country after winning regional events and competed against Toole. That included Candace Sparks, the lone female contestant. Sparks, 41, a mom of three from Tampa, Florida and a U.S. Air Force veteran, pitched Baby Bedside, an all-in-one changing station and insulated diaper bag that can be tucked into the side of a bed for easy access in the middle of the night.

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Sparks came up with the idea in 2007 while living in Okinawa, Japan, after giving birth to her second child via cesarean section. She was having trouble in the middle of the night while lying in bed to get up for clean diapers and other baby essentials, due to the lingering pain in her stomach from the C-section. Her husband was unable to help because he was away on active duty.

Contest finalists from left to right: Jon Cleck, Candace Sparks, Arthur Toole and Jon Bradshaw.Jaci Downs Photography

"I thought, 'Why don't they have something on the side of the bed to house baby products?" said Sparks.

So she went to a local fabric store, took out her sewing machine and made the first Baby Bedside, which she could secure to the bed between the mattress and box spring. Sparks used it for years and made the product for other moms in her church.

"You always have to learn to adapt in the military," Sparks said. "I saw a need to fill." She also gave her advice to others who come up with a business idea. "I would say ‘go for it,’ necessity is the mother of invention," said Sparks, who is seeking funding to manufacture a neoprene version of the bags.

"Mothers and women are the thinkers of the family, we see a need and figure out how to get it solved," she said. "Make the product, use it yourself, get a prototype and test it out on your local community. I was able to create a product to help mothers and give back to mothers."

Another entrepreneur on hand for the event was contest judge Rebecca Gray, 49, a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate in her 30th year of military service and executive director of military and veteran affairs for Comcast NBCUniversal. Gray said her military training has helped her succeed with multiple startups, including her favorite — a dual-language English and Mandrarin charter school in Atlanta.

Rebecca Gray at the judge's table.Jaci Downs Photography

"I think in the military you have to be smart, I think you have to be quick," said Gray, "and when you're a startup you have to be able to look out ahead and see around the corner and then prepare for that."

Gray said she believes female entrepreneurs face different challenges than their male counterparts, including the perception of "credibility issues" by investors. "I think knowing all of your information to a pretty deep level is key," said Gray, "because I think you could possibly be challenged by investors a little bit differently.

"When I've done different startups, I felt like I needed to have every 'I' dotted and every 'T' crossed and sometimes when you're in a startup phase you just can't provide some of that at certain stages," Gray said, "and you have to be okay with that."

Gray has learned that the key to becoming a successful entrepreneur is to "trust your instinct, it will tell you, 'Yeah, this is a good idea.' Even if you get a lot of no's along the way, you've got to trust your gut and your instinct," she said. "And you have to put everything behind it and just try to find that person that will tell you yes."

The other finalists were Luke Hutchison, founder of event matching company Perfect Venue; Jon Bradshaw, creator of the all-natural handmade soap company Household5; and Jon Cleck, a Navy Seal who was seeking funding for an app to go along with the successful in-home Philadelphia area hair styling business he founded with his wife, Stephanie, called Concihairge.

"The business is our fourth child," said Jon Cleck, 43, who also works full time in law enforcement in the Philadelphia area. "And we nurture it and foster and grow it just like it is another child. So just like we do with our regular kids, we don't turn off that parenting or that concern and that growth."

As for winner Arthur Toole and MegRelief, he was the only member of his family at the event and couldn't wait to call home to share the news. "It took seven years for me to convince my father-in-law that this is a viable thing, I am really excited to tell him," says Toole. "I am so grateful, and I'm going to do everything I can to spread the word so people don't have to continue to take pain medications.''