On the fourth Thursday of each month, the McAllen Chamber of Commerce hosts their newest project — the Inventors & Entrepreneurs Network (I&E Network).

“It’s a monthly meeting of inventors and entrepreneurs. The idea behind it is to connect people who have ideas and people who are used to starting businesses with those who can assist them to their next step, whatever that might be,” said Steve Ahlenius, president/CEO of the chamber. “The end game is that, hopefully, they’ll create a product or a business and eventually create jobs, becoming part of the McAllen economy.”

Since the McAllen Chamber is focused on creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship, the idea fits with what they’re doing.

“As a matter of fact, we have a poetry reading going on in our other room right now,” he said, smiling. “But, concerning the I&E Network, you have to be able to connect people. Chambers need to facilitate that and bring people together. They need to help move people down the road with their ideas, businesses and concepts.”

The extra nugget in this evening’s meeting was the discussion of the Chamber’s third offering of their Innovation Grants.

“We’re spreading the word by e-blasting, newspaper, radio — getting the word out,” Ahlenius said. “The Innovation Grant is a competitive process. It’s based off really good ideas. So far we’ve funded five projects. The idea is to get the inventors through that valley of debt. They get to a point where they need a patent search, prototype development, product testing or the like. They need to get through that stage in order for them to reach that point where they’re ready to do market launch. That’s where the challenge is.”

Around the room there were many hopeful faces, mixed with those there to help. Standing and describing their invention or new business concept from shoe storage systems, a new variety of dried fruit, a “green” engine not using gas to a children’s learning-to-read method and laptop stands, and Stop Stroke cards, they introduced themselves.

Carefully, Ahlenius guided them one by one through their current roadblocks, insuring they received help in how to bust out of their dilemmas and move on to their next step.

It was all about connecting. People from UTPA and STC were there to give assistance. Hope was instilled as one gentleman talked of a $1.5 million grant he had received.

The step by step process of what they are all going through was discussed at length, ending with how to get their products developed and marketed. Things such as patents, prototype, due diligence were discussed.

However, first things first. Over and over the fact was imbued in the attendees — a business plan is an absolute must! They’ll never get to the final gate without that all important paper.

Sharing their experience, strength and hope, the meeting followed an agenda and kept on schedule with much attention given to questions and answers. No one left until all were satisfied they were leaving with the information they had come to obtain.

Eduardo Millet, the Chamber’s new vice president of Business Development & Governmental Affairs, explained the process needed to obtain an Innovation Grant from the Chamber. Hoping to give out $50,000 in grants - five $10,000 grants - it follows strict guidelines but the end results help the winners get past their roadblocks, sending them on to their goal of a marketable product.

The ideas were wide and varied and the energy high. Over 25 were in the room on this third meeting. They come with their hopes and dreams and they find solutions and support. Looks like the McAllen Chamber has struck gold again in their ongoing determination to bring creative cultural and economic development to the community.