Some of the Southeast’s most promising startups competed Thursday at the Charlotte Venture Challenge, as they pitched their ideas and products to a crowd of angel investors, venture capitalists and representatives from Fortune 500 companies.
The 13th annual competition – run through UNC Charlotte’s nonprofit business incubator Ventureprise and the Charlotte Research Institute – has been a jumping off point for many startups that go on to secure millions in investments and corporate partnerships.
Last year’s grand-prize winner, Bio-Adhesive Alliance Inc., drew international attention when it developed a way to turn pig waste into liquid asphalt. The company is now opening a pilot plant at North Carolina A&T State University.
From a field of 100 businesses, 38 finalists competed Thursday. This year, winners were recognized in six categories and earned prize money ranging from $5,000 to $12,500, funded through the competition’s sponsorships from businesses, individuals and the university. Here are the winners:
Graduate student venture: Motus Inc.
Stephen Howard, who will graduate from UNC Charlotte this week with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, developed a product line that can be used to create prototypes within hours. The $3,000 Motus “MechBlock” kit – akin to Legos, but for engineers – is a series of modular blocks and bearings for assembling devices and structures.
Right now, engineers and inventors are forced to purchase a single-use commercial product or outsource production for a prototype, a process that can take weeks to months and cost tens of thousands of dollars every time.
Engineers and inventors can use the MeckBlock kit to build the structure they want, and then break down the device and use it again.
Motus won $5,000 at the Charlotte Venture Challenge, while also winning the “People’s Choice” award.
Consumer product and service: ProctorFree
Based in the Lake Norman area, ProctorFree, which won $12,500 at the Challenge, offers secure, online-testing technology to prevent cheating – a major problem in the growing online-education sector.
The technology, which costs $10 to $15, uses a computer’s standard webcam and microphone for facial recognition throughout the exam. It also locks down the student’s computer and monitors for activities, such as cutting and pasting, having additional people in the background, using other electronic devices, cheat sheets and more.
Co-founders are Mike Murphy, who previously worked in military intelligence for the U.S. Department of Defense, and Velvet Nelson, with more than a decade of experience in e-learning higher education.
Health information technology and biotechnology: eosNANO
The company, started out of UNC Charlotte in February 2013, uses fungi and micro-organisms to break down contaminants in water and soil that don’t break down naturally.
Principal Ryan Rutledge, 31, who graduates from UNC Charlotte’s master’s program in environmental toxicology this week, said their process – which involves growing the fungi on wood chips and sawdust – is much more eco-friendly and inexpensive than current solutions in the marketplace. Fellow co-founders include: Richard Giles, Anna Ivanina and Emily Galloway. The company won $12,500 at the Charlotte Venture Challenge.
I.T. and informatics: PRSONAS
The Durham-based company, which won $12,500 in the competition, created computer-generated virtual presenters – akin to holograms, but that can be touched – to interact with customers and gather user analytics.
Here’s how it works: Brands and agencies design a virtual person, from the look to the voice, to the graphics and user experience. Then, that virtual presenter can interact with customers through built-in motion sensors, proximity sensors, artificial intelligence and a touchscreen. PRSONAS units can give marketing pitches, conduct commerce transactions, offer coupons and deliver live video chat support.
CEO David Rose, a former Charlottean, likened the units to Apple’s Siri – but better.
Undergraduate student venture: Track2Quit
A group of four graduating N.C. State University seniors in the engineering entrepreneurs program founded the startup to help smokers nix the habit through a mobile app and corresponding “track pack,” or cigarette case that slides inside a pack of cigarettes and tracks, in real-time, when every cigarette is removed. At those critical junctures, the app offers distractions, such as alerts, encouragement and even funny videos.
Users also can access their behavioral data to determine triggers and high-risk times of day, and share with supporters.
The products range from $10 to $20. Fellow co-founders are: Ian Rogers, 22; Anirudh Mulukutla, 22; and Tarang Patel, 23, and the group won $6,000.
New energy and high technology: Clodico
The Tennessee-based company has a patented environmentally-friendly product that eliminate odors and disinfects using the chemical chlorine-dioxide, which previously hadn’t been packaged, said CEO Joy Fisher. The chemical breaks down into water and salt with exposure to sunlight and air, she said.
Clodico’s target customers are automotive supply distributors and rental car companies, both of which lose money when their vehicles smell of cigarette smoke or odors from animals, food or water damage. Clodico was awarded $12,500 at the Charlotte Venture Challenge.