LOWELL -- With two young children at home in Chelmsford, Trisha Blanchet has spent her fair share of time playing in sandboxes.
On Thursday night at UMass Lowell's Cumnock Hall, the mother and author was awarded a $10,000 grant from the Merrimack Valley Sandbox to help her pair lonesome veterans with homeless dogs.
Blanchet's Operation Canine, a new volunteer project, was the $10,000 grand-prize recipient of the Sandbox's Winners Showdown Pitch Contest.
"I was praying for third place, especially after seeing my competition. They were impressive. I was overjoyed," Blanchet said.
She said that her idea is to match dogs from shelters in Massachusetts with veterans who need the love of a pet to survive better as they return and readjust to society. This will provide good homes for the dogs who would be endangered with euthanization if not adopted.
"The dogs will get the homes they need and the veterans will get the dogs they need," said Blanchet.
Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury will be the recipients of the dogs. With the prize money, Blanchet plans to hire an animal trainer to help identify good dog candidates and provide the training for the dog-veteran matches. Blanchet, who said her dad was a veteran, also will set up a website and begin marketing her project as necessary early steps.
Blanchet, who has worked as a journalist, including her "Mommy Confidential" column for The Sun a few years ago, is also the author of six books. Four of them are in a dog-friendly travel-book series, including New England, New York, Mid-Atlantic and Washington, D.C. She lives in Chelmsford and is the mother of two children, 8 and 5.
Other winners last night included Videographer Startup Boost, with a second-place, $1,200 prize awarded to Jessica Wilson, executive director of Lowell Telecommunication Corp., Lowell's cable-access center. The project will train and develop videographers for jobs with businesses. Wilson said she already has five businesses in line waiting to hire videographers from the first group of 12 students.
The third-place prize of $800 was won by the Rebel Women Web-based project proposed by Pauline Benninga. She said that the website would provide networking, mentoring, and training such as webinars to women interested in starting businesses.
The five other finalists included: Energy Harvesters proposed by Larry Grumer; Fire Drops by Anita Coco; Green Bikes of Lowell by Samir ElKamouny; Dapper Diaper Delivery by Stephanie Buchholz; and Stories in the Streets by Nicolette Nordin Heavey.
Winners from the organization's four previous pitch contests, along with four winners from Thursday night's preliminary round, made two-minute, 30-second pitches to the judges in the final round. Fans in the audience had voted them into this round through texting for their favorite entrepreneur projects.
Previous pitch contests were held earlier this year in Lowell and Lawrence in four entrepreneurial categories: technology/Web/software; arts/crafts/consumer products; education/human services/environment; and one open to all ideas. Winners received $1,000 prizes, with second place earning $750 and third place collecting $500.
Judges on Thursday represented a who's who of area businesses, including Enterprise Bank CEO Jack Clancy; serial entrepreneur Gururaj "Desh" Deshpande; Tom First, co-founder of Nantucket Nectars; Ira Jackson, former executive vice president of BankBoston; Bill O'Donnell, chief architect at Kayak, an online travel site; and Julia Silverio, founder of Julia's Travel and Silverio Insurance.
UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan offered a special introduction. He welcomed the contestants, judges and approximately 100 attendees in the audience. "We have really emphasized ingenuity and entrepreneurship at the university," said Meehan.
The competitive environment was lightened by four young poets who comprise the FreeVerse poets group. The poets -- Joey Bahn, Masada Jones, Ricky Orng and Febo -- each contributed lively readings interspersed between the project presentations.
The Merrimack Valley Sandbox started in December 2010. It's a project of the Deshpande Foundation, which has encouraged entrepreneurship and innovation as catalysts for sustainable change, and is housed at the Merrimack Valley Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UMass Lowell.
The Sandbox boasts more than 30 partner organizations, including the cities of Lowell and Lawrence, the Merrimack Valley YMCA and UMass Lowell.
In December, the Sandbox will host a 12-week Accelerator program that will allow startups access to mentors, workshops and work space, for the purpose of creating a business-plan competition with more cash prizes.