In its early years, the business-innovation competition now known as the Charlotte Venture Challenge was a relatively low-key affair.
In 2001, it was called the Five Ventures competition, named after the number of entrants. Competitors all hailed from UNC Charlotte, the event’s founding institution. And a main judging point was evaluating the quality of business plans submitted.
These days, with the 15th annual finals happening Tuesday, organizers are more focused on the Southeast regional aspect of the competition, which is open to entrants from the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
And rather than focusing on financials and other business-plan staples, organizers want entrants to meet the standard of forging connections with consumers: Who is your customer, and how does your innovation fix their problems?
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Through the name change in 2012 to Charlotte Venture Challenge, organizers could highlight Charlotte as a legitimate place to be an entrepreneur and “bring more attention to Charlotte as a place for entrepreneurial activity,” according to Paul Wetenhall, president of Ventureprise, UNC Charlotte’s business incubator.
He’s teamed with Devin Collins, Ventureprise assistant director who manages the challenge competition.
During Tuesday’s event at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis, they’ll oversee one of the largest groups of finalists for the event – 27, whittled from 92 entrants. Finalists will pitch their ideas to judging panels of investors, corporate innovation executives, and the regional entrepreneurial community.
Over the years, the challenge has helped many startups get initial funding, and later land millions in investments and secure corporate partnerships.
This year’s finals come on the heels of last month’s release of the first Charlotte Entrepreneur Growth Report, which highlights how the region lags behind similar cities in new business formation, and the amount spent on research and development.
“The question we’re asking is how can the Charlotte Venture Challenge model help with that specific problem,” Wetenhall says.
Collins and Wetenhall talk about four ways the competition has influenced the Charlotte and Southeast innovation communities, and how that will continue in the future:
▪ It’s not just for UNCC faculty or student companies.
Evolving from its early days as a UNCC faculty-only event, the competition now includes categories to draw in a range of commercially-viable companies. This year’s categories are general, IT & informatics, new energy and high tech, and student ventures.
There’s an emphasis on the academic side, too: workshops for applicants and finalists cover studying their business ideas and learning how to effectively pitch it. “We don’t just try to pick winners, we try to lift up the quality of all the participants, and that’s been the theme,” Wetenhall says.
The competition also gives campus researchers an avenue to commercialize their work, and student-entrepreneurs some real-world exposure.
It’s critical “getting those researchers, those students, out in front of folks working for those companies...so they can actually get some real feedback,” Collins says.
▪ Notable winners have come from Charlotte.
They include early winners and brothers Igor and Victor Jablokov, whose voice-activated software was later acquired by Amazon. “It’s an impressive technology that you think would come out of Silicon Valley, but actually came out of Charlotte,” Wetenhall says.
Other Charlotte-based winners emerged in 2012. UNCC cancer researcher Dr. Pinku Mukherjee, who won the $50,000 grand prize in 2012, got a patent for an antibody she discovered that is linked to early detection of breast cancer.
DealCloud, an online platform for streamlining mergers and acquisitions with Ben Harrison and Rob Cummings as cofounders, won the IT and informatics category that year, and recently completed a round of growth financing totaling $5.3 million.
And Infosense, winner in the high tech category, uses sound waves to determine pipeline blockages. Creator and UNCC electrical engineer Ivan Howitt now sells his technology globally.
▪ Southeast ventures have earned a showcase, too.
“We knew that there were interesting things bubbling up elsewhere in the southeast” from different universities, Wetenhall says.
“We wanted to begin to attract some of that invention and intellectual property that was happening elsewhere to Charlotte...If you get a broader pool of companies, it takes the competition up.”
Going regional also broadens the pool of investors, Collins says. “We’re also attracting investors and corporations from outside of Charlotte...They’re not going to do that just to see Charlotte companies.”
▪ Helping to answer the ‘who is your customer’ question.
With pitch opportunities more popular now than 15 years ago, Wetenhall and Collins say the Charlotte Venture Challenge will be looking for new ways to connect innovators with potential investors.
Among the strategies: continuing corporate involvement, which over the years has included BMW, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Duke Energy and others.
It’s also important for innovators to focus on learning how their innovations will be important to a specific audience – and letting those findings shape the companies they build.
“Start with this notion of customer discovery,” Wetenhall says.
ShopTalk focuses on Charlotte-area small businesses and how they meet challenges. Know a small business we should write about? Email Celeste Smith, email@example.com.
2016 Charlotte Venture Challenge Finals:
The 2016 Charlotte Venture Challenge happens April 19 at the N.C. Research Campus, 401 Laureate Way, Kannapolis. Registration opens at 12:30 p.m. Finalists’ pitches start 1 p.m. Keynote speaker Chris Heivly, cofounder of MapQuest, speaks at 3 p.m. Award presentations happen 5:30-7:30 p.m. For a full schedule and to register, go to charlotteventurechallenge.com.
BeautyOMICS (Chapel Hill), Dogphrendly (Cornelius), Fridayd (Cornelius), HomeTrackr (Charleston, S.C.), Morph (Carrboro, N.C.), Sweetie Pie Organics (Raleigh), uBack (Charlotte).
IT and Informatics Category:
GuidePro3D (Cornelius), ProjectMQ (Savannah, Georgia), RepRevive (Charlotte), Shipedge (Durham), Thrive GPO (Fort Mill, S.C.), Wellflix (Hillsborough, N.C.)
New Energy and High Tech Category:
8 Rivers Networks (Durham), Grow Bioplastics (Knoxville, Tennessee), Indexus Biomedical (Morrisville, N.C.), Innovasan (Knoxville, Tennessee), SineWatts (Charlotte), XOONIX (Charlotte)
Student Ventures Category:
Reel Scary (UNC Charlotte), Athnetics (UNC Chapel Hill), Body Barrier (Claflin University), Credit4Less (Wingate University), Glance (Appalachian State University), MadDogg Heat Sleeve (Elon University), Monotto (College of Charleston), Tailor Made Financial (UNC Charlotte).