The Download: Challenge Cup at 1776 gives entrepreneurs a chance for global stage


Aaron Fitzgerald, co-founder of TurMS, pitches his company’s software, which helps schools raise money from alumni. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For The Washington Post)
November 3, 2013

Pitch competitions are a fixture in start-up communities.

Entrepreneurs are given a finite amount of time — one minute, three minutes, five minutes — to convince an audience that their venture is something revolutionary or, at the very least, capable of making the founders and potential investors a hunk of money.

Start-up hub 1776 aims to put entrepreneurs on a global stage with its Challenge Cup. Pitch competitions are to take place in 16 cities worldwide, starting with an event last week in D.C. The winners from each city will then fly to Washington in May for the final bout.

It’s kind of like the World Cup, except the players aren’t very athletic but they know how to write Web code.

The Challenge Cup will be an initial test of whether 1776 can catapult D.C. into a globally recognized hub for technology, a goal that the founders set for themselves when they opened the shared office space earlier this year.

But it’s a difficult proposition. D.C. is rarely on the lips of many tech enthusiasts in American cities such as San Francisco, Boston or Austin, let alone such far-flung places as London, Tel Aviv and Moscow.

Still, D.C. put forth its competitors last Tuesday at the 1776 offices on 15th Street NW.

Each contestant had a pre-pitch ritual. One man stared at his reflection in the window as he rehearsed. Others huddled in corners flipping through note cards or listening intently to recordings on headphones.

“There were a lot of nervous people,” said Richard Graves, who pitched on behalf of Georgetown-based Ethical Electric . “There was an open bar right next to where we were all waiting. That might have been to the detriment of a lot of people there.”

One by one they stepped onto a small, black stage at the front of a long room and were given just 60 seconds to summarize what for many of them is an all-consuming passion project.

Under the bright stage lights, many an entrepreneur sputtered. Some accidentally dropped words from spiels that were, perhaps, under-rehearsed. Others lost their place entirely for a second or two — every one of which counts — and stared blankly into the crowd like a Miss America contestant who realizes, mid-sentence, that the crown is slipping from her grasp.

“When someone just flat out forgets what they’re trying to say next, those are usually people that are so rehearsed that they’re just speaking from a memorized sheet,” said Joseph Kopser, the chief executive of RideScout .

Others nailed it. One woman delivered almost her entire pitch in rhyme. A few bellowed into the mic with such force you couldn’t help but listen. As one would expect, the most polished pitches seemed to resonate best.

But whether you fumble or flourish, your chance to win over judges from 1776, Pearson, Microsoft and Smart Growth America, among other places, ended as soon as your minute was up — a moment signaled by the deep clang of a gong.

“Some people just walk away immediately and have to come down off the high. I fall into that category,” Kopser said. “I get so energized that when it’s done I’m kind of spun up and I need to come down again.”

The 35 companies participating in round one fell into one of four categories — health, education, energy or smart cities. The judges then selected two from each category to present more thorough pitches with power-point slides.

“If you have five or 10 minutes, you can really talk off the cuff and I think that’s better because it’s more real,” said David Fairbrothers, co-founder of health software company Dorsata .

“My specific challenge there was trying to find ways to not sound too wordy or have too many acronyms and buzz words and really find a way to make it relatable to someone that isn’t in the medical community everyday,” he said.

But Fairbrothers said that the competition itself — while nice to win — isn’t always an accurate measure of a company’s potential. His company claimed the health category, but Fairbrothers said he benefited most from a one-on-one conversation with judge Brian Jacobs from Children’s National Medical Center.

“When you execute these kind of challenges properly, that’s what you want to have happen. You want those connections to be made,” Fairbrothers said.

Now, the winners from the Washington competition must prepare to compete in May against firms from around the world. The top eight companies globally will receive investments from 1776, along with mentors, exposure and other prizes.

Benjamin Levy, the founder of eduCanon , hopes to be more polished by then. His firm won the education category despite only having participated in two prior pitch contests. Levy rehearsed his one-minute pitch about 50 times the day before the competition, he said.

“By that time [in May] I will have done so many more of these that I hope I will be much more practiced and it will come more naturally,” he said.

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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