Local entrepreneur sees business opportunity in beer pong game

Beer pong may be a popular drinking game, but Mark Alway believes it has much more potential.

Alway has created an interactive table for bars and nightclubs that features plenty of lights, keeps track of the scores and has a suspension system that makes the pingpong ball hover when not in use.

He wanted to create a product that steers beer pong away from the darker aspects of the game, namely binge drinking, and focuses more on fun and skill.

"I think of (beer pong) as a sport, much like darts," said Alway, a Ferndale High School and University of Washington graduate who has his company, Penumbra Tables LLC, in Mount Vernon. "There is a world beer pong championship, and that's all about getting the winning score, not drinking beer."

The company has two tables currently being tested at The Underground Nightclub in downtown Bellingham and at Draft Pic's Sports Bar and Grill in Mount Vernon. There are many ways to play beer pong, but the basic idea is that competitors bounce or toss a pingpong ball into one of 10 cups on the far side of the table. The first to put the ball into all 10 cups wins.

One of the eye-catching features of Penumbra's table is the hovering ball. It was originally conceived as a way to dry the ball (the cups, by the way, are filled with water, not beer), but for many customers it just looks cool.

The product has already caught the eye of local investors. Last month Alway won $750 at the Bellingham-based BIG Idea Lab's monthly pitch fest, which gives entrepreneurs a chance to pitch a business idea to potential investors and audience members. Alway is now eligible to participate in the local Annual Venture Mash, with the potential of winning more than $35,000 in cash and prizes.

Tyler Byrd of BIG Idea Lab said the audience seemed to like the visual aspects of the product, while investors were impressed with the business plan, which includes multiple revenue streams.

Along with selling or leasing the tables, Penumbra Tables has an interesting way of collecting money from customers. Instead of the traditional coin-operated format used on bar games like pool tables, customers sign up online and pay for a certain time to use the table. The system can send them a text message that their table is almost ready.

The table is also connected to the Internet and can provide players real-time leader boards as well as a variety of options, such as posting scores on Facebook. By having customers sign up to play, it also can provide bars some basic information about their customers. The establishments can then send the customers texts/emails with coupons to entice them into coming back. Customers will have the opportunity to opt out of the coupon announcements.

The next step for Penumbra Tables is a big one: Alway will be attending the Nightclub and Bar Convention in Las Vegas in March to try to land more clients. Alway already is receiving some interest, including from one homeowner who wants to complete the ultimate man-cave with a Seattle Seahawks-themed table. Selling the table to a private citizen would be in the $5,000 range.

As for winning the local business pitch fest, Alway said he is grateful that an opportunity like this is available in Bellingham. He already has received some good advice from business people who saw the pitch.

Byrd said the January event was a success, with more than 200 people attending. The plan is to have a pitch fest once a month, with the Annual Venture Mash being held in the first quarter of 2015.

For details about Penumbra Tables, visit the company's Facebook page. For details on the pitch fest and BIG Idea Lab, visit bellinghaminnovationgroup.com.