On Friday, May 4, the 8-month long W.R. Berkley Innovation Labs $300k Entrepreneurship Challenge came to a climactic conclusion. The 2018 Final Pitch-Off and Award Ceremony began at 1:00 pm and continued through the evening. The $300k Entrepreneurship Challenge, which began with 202 initial teams and had been winnowed down to the final 12 participants, featured three tracks: the New Venture Competition, the Social Venture Competition and the Technology Venture Competition. Cash prizes were awarded to the winner or winners of each track. Winners also receive an additional $50,000 in pro bono services.
The winner of Mission Appossible, an annual entrepreneurship contest in which teams compete to develop the business case for an application-based business, was also crowned at the event.
The Mission Appossible Challenge has grown steadily over the three years it has been hosted; there were almost as many participants in the 2018 Mission Appossible Challenge as the $300K Challenge. The Mission Appossible challenge had a different structure than the $300k Entrepreneurs Challenge: potential entrepreneurs began the challenge in early February, with the goal of designing a business plan that would be turned into a functioning app. The Mission Appossible Challenge was run in partnership with Messapps, an app development company that agreed to build the winner of the challenge’s app.
The afternoon of the Final Pitch-Off began with the founders of each start-up doing their final pitch to a panel of judges. The teams from each of the three tracks each pitched in a separate room. Each start-up received nine minutes to pitch their business to the panel, and after each pitch there was an extended Q&A session. Judges gave suggestions, probed the challenger’s business plans, and gave critical feedback. While this portion of the event was open to the public, spectators were prohibited from asking questions.
After the pitch sessions were completed, the judges retired for deliberation. Judges based their decisions on the final pitches, each start-up’s explainer video, and the written statement prepared by each team. The panels of judges were composed of members of the start-up and NYU community.
“For the $300K Entrepreneurs Challenge, we select judges who have deep experience in startups, technology, social impact and/or innovation more broadly and can use that experience to assess the likelihood of a venture’s success,” explained Phoebe Punzalan, Associate Director at the W.R. Berkley Innovation Labs. “We also look for individuals who are excited to work with NYU and eager to help develop the next generation of entrepreneurs.”
At 5:00 pm the main event began. Luke Williams, Executive Director at the W.R. Berkley Innovation Labs, was the master of ceremonies. The 12 participants each gave a shortened, three-minute version of their final pitch, and then played a brief explainer video to the audience. Williams followed up with a few questions for each team about their experience over the day. After each track’s start-ups finished presenting, audience members were invited to vote for their favorite start-up.
After the start-ups had all done their final pitches, the event pivoted to the Mission Appossible challenge. Cynthia Franklin, Director of Entrepreneurship at W.R. Berkley Innovation Labs, led this portion of the evening’s event.
After all the pitches and videos were presented, it was time to crown the winner in each category. In addition to the cash prizes, Audience Choice awards were given to the team that received the greatest number of votes in each track. Before the awards were presented to the winning start-ups, Edward Laganais was presented with the “Mentor of the Year” award. Laganis was praised for his tireless dedication to the competition and the long hours he had put into mentoring the start-ups.
For Mission Appossible, the Peoples Choice Award went to Dalia, a beauty application for women who wear the hijab. The Grand Prize winner was HealthHuddle, a platform for medical professionals that aggregates health information. HealthHuddle was part of a broader trend in the competition, with more submissions from healthcare focused apps.
“This year’s winner, HealthHuddle, reflected one trend. There was a significant number of submissions aimed at improving how medical care is provided,” Franklin explained. “Perhaps not surprisingly, given these disturbing political times, there was also a good number of apps centered around stimulating and facilitating civic engagement, political activism, and conscious consumerism.”
For the $300k Challenge, three start-ups were given Best Presentation awards. The winners of these awards were Food Period, a New Venture start-up, Merciless Motors, a Technology Venture start-up, and FairFrame, a Social Ventures start-up.
For the New Ventures track, the Audience Choice award went to Grocer8, a start-up that helps shoppers find healthy packaged foods using a rating and recommendation platform. The Grand Prize was split between Grocer8, which received a $25,000 prize and Food Period, which received a prize of $75,000. Food Period created a subscription-based service that uses natural food products to help alleviate menstrual symptoms.
For the Social Venture track, Taqadam received the Audience Choice Award. Taqadam brings unemployed or displaced people in the Middle East and North Africa into the global economy. The Grand Prize winner was awarded to FairFrame, an AI-driven platform which helps uncover unconscious bias in written communications in organizations.
The winner of the Technology Venture Track $100,000 Grand Prize was Sunthetics, a start-up founded by Tandon students. Sunthetics provides energy-efficient and cost-effective solutions for producing more environmentally friendly nylon. The Audience Choice award was given to Merciless Motors.
This year’s crop of winners was particularly noteworthy for their diversity.
“The 2017-18 competition year was truly a banner year for women entrepreneurs,” Punzalan said. “One hundred percent of the grand prize winners (4 out of 4 teams) were led or co-led by women, who represented more than 71 percent (10 out of 14 individuals) of these teams’ founding members. All of us at the W. R. Berkley Innovation Labs are incredibly proud to see diversity playing a more prominent role in the startup space.”