Ashley Dow scoops samples of vegan ice cream for attendees at the Top Gun entrepreneurial contest in Portland on May 23, 2019. Dow and her sister Kelley Dow plan to open a scoop shop in Portland in the next couple months. They were one of two winners of the Top Gun contest. Credit: Lori Valigra

A Portland company that makes dairy-free ice cream and an Orono biomedical startup that designed a device to sense nerve damage each won a $25,000 prize at the Top Gun entrepreneur contest in Portland on Thursday evening.

Sticky Sweet, which makes plant-based ice cream that is gluten-free, said it would use the money to help scale up production by purchasing a blast freezer that can more quickly cool ice cream.

Neuright Inc. is developing a combined diagnostic test and therapy for early detection and treatment of peripheral neuropathy, a condition in which nerves die away from the skin.

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“We are Portland’s first plant-based ice cream company,” said Kelley Dow, who started Sticky Sweet with her sister, Ashley Dow.

The sisters plan to open a scoop shop at 119 Cumberland Ave. in Portland. Kelley Dow said they hope to do so in the next two months. They are awaiting permit approvals.

The ice cream is made with raw cashews, organic coconut milk and dates. The company sells more than a dozen flavors in its own waffle cones or in pints. Flavors include sea salted maple, cookies and cream, and cool mint brownie.

Kelley Dow said the market for dairy-free ice cream is $400 million this year, and will grow to $1 billion globally by 2024, according to Global Market Insights, a market research firm. That includes both vegans, who eat no meat or dairy products, and others choosing a healthy lifestyle.

Sticky Sweet started selling ice cream cones and cups at the Public Market House about a year ago. It also sells pints in six local stores, including the Portland Food Co-op.

The ice cream sells out quickly, Kelley Dow said, even though each pint costs $10, more than double traditional ice cream. The sisters hope to get the price down with new equipment, including the blast freezer, which can boost production.

“The blast freezer can freeze ice cream in 30 minutes compared to six hours with a traditional freezer,” Kelley Dow said.

Faster production should also help comparatively low profit margins of 30 percent to 40 percent, depending on the ice cream flavor. The high cost of ingredients and small scale of production are keeping the product price high.

The company had a Kickstarter campaign in November 2018 and exceeded the $22,000 fundraising goal to buy new blenders and freezers. The new equipment could boost the six pints the sisters were making each hour by tenfold.

Neuright also expects to grow quickly with a device that can measure nerve activity for early detection and treatment of peripheral neuropathy, the dying back of nerves that occurs in diabetics, cancer patients on chemotherapy and patients with HIV.

Magdalena Blaszkiewicz, president and CEO of the Orono-based company, started her Top Gun presentation by showing a photo of a car stuck halfway out of a restaurant.

“Eileen drove into the restaurant because she lost sensation in her feet from diabetes,” Blaszkiewicz said.

Of the 100 million people in the United States who have diabetes or are in the process of getting the disease, more than 60 percent develop peripheral neuropathy, she said. The costs associated with the disease amount to $30 billion a year.

“There’s no cure but with early diagnosis it’s possible to treat the disease,” she said. That includes drugs that mitigate pain. However, the company’s device also can stimulate the regrowth of nerves that are retreating below the skin surface.

The company has designed a micro-needle array that can measure nerve conduction, the ability of the nerve to send signals to muscles.

Blaszkiewicz said the company’s product, which will be manufactured by existing medical device companies under partnerships, will cost far less than current nerve activity detectors.

“Ours will cost a couple hundred dollars,” she said. Current devices cost $1,000 to $2,000.

The two companies competed against eight other finalists, two each from the five locations of the Top Gun program in the state: Portland, Bangor, Waterville, Rockland and Lewiston-Auburn. Each location recently held an event to choose its two winners to attend the competition.

Top Gun is a four-month program run by the Maine Center for Entrepreneurs that pairs early stage companies with experienced mentors to help them develop and grow.

At the Thursday event at the University of Southern Maine, the 10 finalists presented their companies and strategies before a panel of six judges from Maine businesses. The judges considered the companies’ scalability, feasibility, innovation and context presentation when choosing the winners.

“This was the largest class so far with 43 companies,” said Tom Rainey, executive director of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurs.

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Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...