From Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk to the founders of the slew of unicorn companies scattered throughout San Francisco and the Peninsula, entrepreneurs have long since reached rock star status in the Bay Area.

High school student Jack Noble has firsthand experience of that status.

In May, Noble stood on the stage at the Sweetwater Music Hall, arm in arm with both fledgling and established entrepreneurs to celebrate winning Mill Valley Labs’ inaugural Young Entrepreneur Prize (YEP).

Noble, a Mill Valley native, started his Manzanita Labs mobile game development company with Adam Deming and Hank Gansert, fellow classmates at Bishop Manogue High School in Reno. Their flagship game, EcoEmpire, seeks to “bridge the gap between entertainment and reality” by getting players to react to actual current events, including natural disasters, and monitor their actions’ impact on the environment.

PictureA screenshot of Manzanita Labs’ “EcoEmpire” mobile game. Courtesy image.

Noble says he was thrilled that the game won the YEP and the $3,000 cash prize that comes with it, but even more excited to get validation from Mill Valley Labs’ founders and a sense that they understood Manzanita’s mission. The company’s team has grown to six, including two Tam High students and one from the Mill Valley Middle School, and is set to launch EcoEmpire on Apple and Android phones in January.

Mill Valley Labs is a two year-old nonprofit organization created by a group of Mill Valley entrepreneurs who found themselves “witnessing an influx of entrepreneurial talent into Mill Valley and seeing an opportunity for creativity through the eyes of our children,” hoping to “leverage our business expertise.”

One of those founders is entrepreneur and 12-year Mill Valley resident Ben Dehan, CEO of Therapydia, a growing network of physical therapy clinics.

“We just thought that we could bring our talents to bear and help people here see their ideas through,” Dehan says.
That expertise has not gone unnoticed. A study of the “Top Places to Start a Business in Northern California” by personal finance information portal NerdWallet ranked Mill Valley first in the entire North Bay and 10th in Northern California.  

“The city has 24 businesses for every 100 people, the highest number of businesses of all the communities on our list,” wrote study author Jonathan Todd.

Mill Valley Labs hosts monthly pitch meeting where local entrepreneurs of any age can pitch their ideas in the hopes of garnering guidance and new contacts. The organization was able to connect another of the 2015 YEP finalists, Tam students Julienne and Antje Worring’s clothing line Karma Bikinis, with Marian Kwon’s Sausalito-based tween brand Epic Sky, and the two companies are collaborating.

Young Entrepreneur Prize applications, which are heavily focused on a short pitch video, are due January 11.

“We’re really focused on the pitch,” Dehan says. “In the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, you need to be able to distill your message into an easy to understand, meaningful pitch.”

Mill Valley Labs doles out $5,000 to the four finalists – $3,000 to the winner, $1,000 to second place and $500 apiece to the other two finalists. 

“We’re just trying to make connections here in Mill Valley,” Dehan says. “Ten years ago, there didn’t seem to be much happening from an entrepreneurial standpoint here in town. But we want everyone to know how entrepreneurially charged up Mill Valley is right now – it’s a hotbed. You don’t have to go all the way down to Sand Hill Rd. for that expertise – it’s right here.”

The 411: Applications for the Young Entrepreneur Prize are due January 11. More info.

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