At Innovate Newport’s “Startup Pitch” competition on Oct. 7, competitors and judges frequently spoke of the drive required to start a business. The event’s winner, Casey Gallagher, co-founder and executive director of LUNA Community Care, a disabled worker’s cooperative based in Pawtucket, was no exception.
“I’ve always been an entrepreneur,” Gallagher said. “When I was 11, I was written up in a local newspaper for selling jewelry. I’m very surprised and honored to have won. I feel like this competition was a really great opportunity for me to share what we are about, what we do and the population that we service.”
Ten businesses and organizations from around the state pitched judges on their products, services and ideas, which ranged from Gallagher’s focus on addressing disability needs to energy consultation to garlic sauce.
Competitors had about five minutes to present their case. The winner received $1,000, a dedicated desk at Innovate Newport, a one-year membership to the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce, a promotional package and advertising in local media outlets.
The competition was sponsored by the chamber and the Social Enterprise Greenhouse at Newport as part of Rhode Island Startup Week, a week-long celebration to bring together entrepreneurs, investors and business leaders and to inspire collaboration.
In the end, Gallagher and LUNA Community Care emerged triumphant. When asked how LUNA would benefit from the winnings, Gallagher said the prize money would help fund a self-employment program for neurodivergent adults.
Gallagher, a licensed mental health counselor, co-founded LUNA in 2020 as the first disabled worker’s cooperative in the United States after becoming ill, temporarily losing vision and suffering autistic burnout. Gallagher began to envision a peer support space for people experiencing similar situations while being “neurodivergent,” a term for individuals whose brain functions and works differently than the norm.
“I felt isolated and disconnected,” Gallagher said. “I knew that I needed a community that could understand my needs, and as a mental health therapist, I knew that other people like me desire connection and support with others with shared, lived experience.”
Neurodivergence, Gallagher said, includes individuals with ADHD, intellectual disabilities, sensory process and learning differences, autism, anxiety, personality disorders, and traumatic brain injuries. One in seven people in the United States are neurodivergent, according to Gallagher.
Luna Community Care aims to improve quality of life for neurodivergent adults and promote a shift in the culture, attitudes and acceptance of neurodivergent and disabled individuals.
“We do this by providing programming for folks who feel like the outside world wasn’t made for them,” Gallagher said. “Luna is a neuro-affirming, gender-affirming space where one can be their authentic self without having to mask or be judged for our differences.”
Offering virtual and in-person programming, Luna’s headquarters double as a drop-in “peer support space,” where clients 18-and-over can connect with others who have similar experiences and challenges in the interest of group healing and self-empowerment. The cooperative also offers special interest clubs, peer support groups, resources for self-advocacy, self-employment support, training, consultations, community events and workshops.
Forming the organization as a cooperative was an important starting point.
“LUNA believes in both meeting disabled workers individual needs and growing intergenerational wealth for disabled individuals and that is why we chose to incorporate as a domestic workers cooperative,” Gallagher said. “As a cooperative, we all learn the various aspects of running our businesses, which allows us to wear different hats when another member is sick, feeling burnt out, in crisis or needs time to care for themselves.”
The classification also allows employees at LUNA to potentially receive annual dividends that would go toward their healthcare costs.
All programming at LUNA is offered on a sliding scale, so clients pay what they can afford. The support offered by the cooperative is not typically found among those working in mental healthcare, Gallagher said.
“I never felt like I had much support from the mental health community,” Gallagher said. “When you’re in that field, you’re not able to necessarily share or talk about the fact that this is something you also struggle with.
“While our programming is really tailored to all adults, and we think it’s really important to build support for that, another group or population that we also find very important are people like myself, who are discovering that they are neurodivergent in their 30s or 40s or 50s and need support around that,” Gallagher added.
The competition was hosted by the chamber’s director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Mollie Frazier Williams, and featured a panel of judges consisting of Linda Larsen, programs and partnership manager at 401 Tech Bridge; Peter Dorsey, Jr., president of The Business Development Company; and David Altounian, vice provost of graduate and professional studies at Salve Regina University.
Other companies at the competition included Thrive Outside, a Providence-based nonprofit promoting outside play for young students; 401 Garlic Sauce, a company started in Westerly; GrowIn, a hydroponic-based food growing initiative that fights food insecurity; Montara Mountain Energy, a small energy consulting firm based in California; Island Youth Coaching, a youth-focused, lifecoaching company; Pangea.app, a recruitment and hiring app; IMADD, a company promoting a virtual reality, vision-based test for marijuana impairment on the road; and RI Women in Trades, a nonprofit promoting fair and equal access to information, training and employment in the construction industry.
After each startup’s pitch, judges asked questions relating to business operations and what impact the prize money would have on programming. Judges also considered the problem being addressed and the startup’s solution.
“Every one of these companies were in a position where all the judges were fighting for our favorites,” Altounian said. “Every one of these companies should be commended.”
Testimonials from local success stories and past event winners, including Jordan Durand of Simple Merchant Coffee, Ian Estephan Owen of Jaia Robotics and Peter Mottur of Vizsafe, Inc., were also included at the event.
Conversion Centers, a company specializing in energy conversion for automobiles, came in second.
Mottur summed up the trait that unites entrepreneurs, simultaneously echoing Gallagher’s pitch around the concept of neurodiversity.
“You have to be wired a little differently, I think, to be an entrepreneur,” he said.
Those living on Aquidneck Island are welcome to enroll in LUNA’s in-person or virtual programming and access the cooperative’s services. According to Gallagher, LUNA’s in-person outreach may soon expand to more areas around the state.
To learn more, visit lunacommunitycare.org.