Virtual Pitchapalooza

Taking in the sights and sounds of the Dempsey Startup Competition investment round—online

VerbalEyes

I can’t help missing the buzz. That atomic energy generated by 30+ student startups—from colleges and universities up and down the Cascade corridor—fever-pitching business plans to hundreds of roving prospective investors within the reactor of a single ballroom in the University of Washington Husky Union Building. The resounding ambition! The ardent conviviality! The boisterous, riotous, glorious noise!

Last week’s investment round of the Foster School’s annual Dempsey Startup Competition was a quieter affair. Forced online by pandemic for a second-straight year, this marquee event of the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship could never replicate the grand cacophony that usually ascends from this communal celebration of the new and the next.

But muted does not mean mundane. Is it possible to fully convey the entrepreneurial passion of youth across pixels? Oh yeah!

The investment round continued to exhilarate online, but in a different way. The companies and their founders were as eclectic and electric as ever. But if anything, within the virtual cloisters of their Zoom breakout rooms, their pitches were more intimate, informative, interactive, delivered (in a more conversational than carnival tone) to a small clutch of judges at a time. On-screen demos and PowerPoint presentations illustrated their propositions on the spot; augmented information was a mere click away.

If anything, the virtual venue intensified the spotlight on each of the dizzying array of bright-to-brilliant business ideas. Here’s a sampling:

Virtual living

Given the social distancing of life and work over the past year-plus, a number of entrants were unsurprisingly built around enhancing virtual experiences.

LifeAt

For instance, LifeAt is a next-generation virtual college tour experience that puts prospective students inside of campus classrooms, quads, dorms and dining halls, from the comfort of their couch.

SongChain is a marketplace for independent musicians to use emerging NFT—that is, non-fungible token—technology to retain greater creative control and ownership of their music.

Takeoff is a social food delivery platform that empowers college students to leverage their social network for free and convenient food delivery (in other words, use friends rather than Grubhub or DoorDash).

Afterlife Listings

And Afterlife Listings, inspired by a frustrating customer experience during the COVID-19 lockdown, is bringing the cemetery industry into the 21st century with the first online marketplace for burial plot transactions, verification and financing.

Medical miracles

Among the amazing healthcare innovations on offer, Ananta is developing a bioreactor that can rapidly expand T-cells for use in cancer immunotherapy.

Crimson Medical Solutions is developing a tool for nurses to reduce medication errors through streamlined IV-line organization.

Med Vigilance is developing a cloud-based solution to the problem of disrupted drug supply chains that allows for the creation of predictive and preventative strategies.

VoxCell BioInnovation has invented a high-resolution bioprinter capable of creating human tissue models with the correct arrangement of blood vessels in an organ or part.

Sound Sustainability

And Sound Sustainability—whose pitch in the wake of the Oscar-nominated Sound of Metal could not be timed more impeccably—is developing one of the first over-the-counter hearing aids and virtual hearing tests (currently seeking FDA approval), with a goal of improving the hearing health of the world.

Green tech

Puget Buoy

Among the competition’s most sustainable businesses, Triden Solutions seeks to eliminate the excessive waste produced by the cleaning-products industry by providing advanced touchless sanitization solutions.

Puget Buoy is the maker of an experimental fishing buoy system designed to prevent whale entanglements and reduce lost fishing gear for the improved health and sustainability of the seafood industry.

GreenLoop produces a biodegradable plastic made from coir pith (a byproduct of coconuts) that naturally breaks down into an organic fertilizer.

And, for a bit more participatory eco-sensation, Campus Can Crushers is selling an aluminum can recycling bin with a hand-operated compactor that can be customized with university logos or any other branding. “We tested it out on fraternities and they seem to like it,” said one of the founders from the University of Idaho. “Who doesn’t like to crush things?”

Bettering humanity

A number of idealistic ideas included HealthXpress, which is refurbishing mobile clinics to solve the problem of health inequality in underdeveloped countries.

Anderson Biohybrid Systems

Anderson Biohybrid Systems is developing chemical sensors inspired by systems found in nature to allow first responders to better detect toxic gases, chemical weapon, and explosive discharges in the event of a disaster.

Provide Now offers non-profits a marketplace solution to alleviate in-kind donation issues and give them control over what they receive and when they receive it.

And VerbalEyes is developing an AI-powered technology that creates greater accessibility for people with visual impairments to access and understand videos.

Offbeat (and unofficial) bests

The judges, in their vast entrepreneurial wisdom and interrogation-level questioning, have discerned the most viable businesses to advance to the Dempsey Startup Competition’s Sweet 16 and continue vying for a piece of the $90K in prize money—a record haul for this 24th edition of the event. Among them will be a number of official prize winners in different “Best Idea” categories. But a few stood out in other, less-official ways. Apropos of nothing, here are a few more superlatives from the investment round, as selected by this inexpert observer:

Most potent potables:

A Dempsey Startup investment round without the possibility of proffering samples left few taste-making entries this year, though a couple made strong impressions just the same.

Spirited

Spirited is sending subscribers curated bar boxes with craft spirits inside to make it easier and more fun to build a home bar collection.

DryScoop

Somewhat less appetizing is DryScoop, the first pre-workout protein and energy powder formulated to be consumed dry—like Pixy Stix, minus the brain-frying sugar—in a single use, recyclable pouch. Its power-lifting creators swear that their product is a massive improvement in taste over competitors in the market, which one co-founder described as “scooping a handful of sand and swallowing it.”

We’ll take his word for it.

Most far-out idea:

Wave Motion Launch seeks to increase access to space by decreasing the cost of launching satellites and maintenance tools into orbit by over 90% using new patented launch technology called the “jet-gun.” It’s all very technical. But suffice it to say that it could revolutionize the thrust and precision of everything from artillery shells to orbital rocketry.

Cutest logo design:

Peko and their colorful bird.

Not one but two companies adopted tropical birds as graphical mascots, to great effect: the angular blue macaw repping VerbalEyes and the curvilinear green parakeet forming the P in Peko, developer of an analytics-based mobile app to make cooking easy while reducing food waste across the supply chain.

Catchiest business name:

Community Collaboratory has deftly mashed up the words “collaboration” and “laboratory” to evoke its website and app that makes it easy for adults to offer and receive safe and flexible social support.

Bandit Labs, which is using artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing (NLP) to develop analytical tools to help e-commerce businesses better understand the customer experience, decided, for some reason, to align itself with the most ubiquitous urban critter to roam its hometown of Vancouver, BC: the crafty racoon.

Cledge

And finally, there is… Cledge, the team developing an algorithm-driven e-learning platform with the goal of expanding access to college admissions counseling. And no, that name refers neither to the upper stratum of a fine clay known as fuller’s earth (Wictionary), nor to the slang term for a solemn promise you have no intention of keeping (Urban Dictionary). And it is not intended to evoke the spirit of some fictional ’90s metal band. Cledge is simply a portmanteau of “college” + “edge.” Clever.

Alas, this particular educational platform did not make the cut for this year’s Sweet 16. But here’s wishing the remaining collegiate competitors a winning cledge in the Dempsey Startup Competition’s final rounds, May 26 and 27.