Raft creator wins Stanislaus business contest

Next Level Tactical owner Luke Rocha took second place in the Stanislaus Innovation Challenge with his invention of a holster that snugly fits an Airsoft gun.
Next Level Tactical owner Luke Rocha took second place in the Stanislaus Innovation Challenge with his invention of a holster that snugly fits an Airsoft gun. aalfaro@modbee.com

Elias Ruiz crafted a raft that carried him to victory in the Stanislaus Innovation Challenge.

The Hughson resident topped three other finalists Wednesday night in the business idea contest, decided by a panel of judges and audience voting. He entered his Feather Raft, aimed at anglers and others for use on lakes and streams.

“What made the difference for us was the ability to take this to market in big scale,” said judge Oscar Cabello, a vice president and district manager at Wells Fargo. “And we also see the potential for bringing the cost down once he starts buying (materials) in bulk.”

The Stanislaus Business Alliance put on the contest with the bank, The Modesto Bee and the Stanislaus/Merced Angels investment group. It was open to people who live, own companies or attend school in Stanislaus County.

Ruiz, a 37-year-old teacher, won $2,500 in cash and the same amount in professional services, which could be accounting, marketing or other kinds of help.

About 75 people turned out at the Kirk Lindsey Center in downtown Modesto for the finals, involving the winners of four regional rounds this fall. Along with Ruiz were Luke Rocha with a holster that snugly fits an Airsoft gun, Fred Axton with an easy-access shower, and Joel Gutierrez Campos with a mobile app for use in redevelopment projects.

The finals started with each entrant making a five-minute presentation, aided by slides, videos or the actual products, if desired. They took questions from the five judges, all of them business leaders in the Modesto area. The experts pressed them on possible funding sources, market research, unique product features and other details.

The judges and the audience then voted to have Ruiz and Rocha move on to the next stage – more intensive questioning by the judges. Another round of voting gave Ruiz the win.

He is a math and science teacher at Dutcher Middle School in Turlock. He said the raft, which weighs about 55 pounds, is easy to unload from a vehicle and can be used for fishing, waterfowl hunting, river cleanups and other purposes.

The price for a basic model is $925, but Ruiz said he hopes to reduce it with more efficient production and higher volume. So far, he has sold 19 rafts, made from plastic foam in his garage and coated in a durable finish by an outside company.

Judge David Darmstandler, co-founder of the Datapath information technology company, asked Ruiz whether shifting weight on the raft might make it unstable.

Not a problem, the contestant answered. “I stand up and shoot with my shotgun at ducks.” He also enjoys bowfishing, and the raft gives him a better angle than other watercraft.

Ruiz summed up his business pitch in rhyme: “We hope we’ve won your vote, so we can help keep you afloat.”

The other judges were attorney Lou Friedman; Julie Orona, vice president and art director at Never Boring Design; and Ken Riddick, president and publisher of The Bee.

Rocha, 27, is co-owner of Next Level Tactical on Kansas Avenue, which sells toy guns and other equipment for Airsoft competitions. The holster he entered is made in the shop from plastic molded onto a gun, providing a better fit than the nylon cloth holsters in wide use. Rocha said the staff could go from three to four if the product takes off.

“We’d like to add another job and some revenue and another success story in Stanislaus County,” he said.

Axton, who is 62 and retired from construction, had an idea for a sliding door that replaces part of a bathtub wall. This would allow elderly or disabled people to step in for a shower with less risk of slipping. The presentation included a recent New York Times article, which ran in The Bee, on the dangers of falling.

Campos, 25, has a mobile phone application that allows people to suggest uses for vacant properties. Realtors and owners would pay to have their sites listed.

“People want to provide input to create better communities,” said Campos, who is working on a master’s degree in urban planning from San Jose State University.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.


The organizers of the Stanislaus Innovation Challenge plan to hold the event again in 2015. It will have six regional rounds around Stanislaus County, up from four this year, with the finals again in December. Details will be at www.alliancesbdc.com as they emerge.


The sixth annual San Joaquin Entrepreneur Challenge will take place in March and April at the Stockton Golf & Country Club. It seeks business ideas from people in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Alpine, Amador, Calaveras, Mariposa and Tuolumne counties. A total of $10,000 in cash and $14,000 in professional services is at stake. More information is at www.sjchallenge.homestead.com.