Two days before the Fourth of July, Washington-based start-up accelerator 1776 announced plans to host an ambitious, international competition. The goal? Assemble the world’s most talented entrepreneurs in D.C. for a week to “reinvent” health, education, energy, and government. The first rounds would begin in October and culminate in a week-long series of events in D.C. next spring.
The competition, called “The Challenge Cup,” would take place over a series of rounds. The initial qualifying round will take place in 16 “target” cities, eight of which are in the United States. San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Denver, and of course, Washington make up that list. The other eight are London, Berlin, Moscow, Tel Aviv, Cape Town, Mumbai, Beijing and Sao Paulo.
That list isn’t written in stone. “There’s always the possibility of a last-minute move,” said 1776 co-founder Donna Harris. Depending on the level of interest, smaller towns and cities could host qualifying rounds of their own to determine which start-ups can compete in one of the target cities.
OK, let’s say you want to compete. The plan, for now, goes like this: Start-ups that want to participate will need a referral from one of 1776’s yet-to-be-named designated partners. They’ll also need crowd-sourced support from their community endorsing the start-up’s ability to tackle a problem in one of the four categories: health, education, energy and “metro” — a “broad catch-all category” that could include anything from transportation to governing processes, said Harris.
In other words, no iterative mobile games allowed — unless they are tackling a challenge in one of the four areas. And ideas aren’t enough to get a spot in The Challenge Cup, says 1776 co-founder Evan Burfield. The judges will, hopefully, be pulling out their checkbooks after the competition.
“This isn’t an ideas competition, it’s actually a start-ups-with-product competition,” said Burfield. “We’re capitalists. This is about free enterprise and building profit-making enterprises by tackling these big industries.”
According to a planning document provided to The Washington Post by 1776, recommended start ups — a maximum of 40 — would be given an opportunity to have a “mentorship session” with the judges before the regional qualifier. Once it starts, they will be called on to give a one-minute pitch. The group of 40 is then slashed down to three in each of the four categories. Those 12 start-ups move on to the second and final pitch-session round. In that round, they will be given five minutes for a pitch followed by a three-minute question-and-answer session.
Highlander rules apply: there can be only one winner in each category. Those lucky few get a ticket to Washington and the chance to participate in the week-long Challenge Festival in May.
The festival, according to the planning document, will be a whirlwind of events at 1776 and participating embassies. The week would be filled with a mix of community events, parties and the Challenge Cup’s final competitions. Finalists will be called on to compete for the title of “the most promising start-up tackling the greatest challenge,” media attention and, of course, prize money in the form of an investment (amount to be announced later) from the 1776 discovery fund.
So, for those keeping score, that’s a competition that will go from 64 competitors, to the sweet 16 to to the final four and then to one winner. If start up innovation had a March Madness, that’s ideally what this competition would be.
“It’s an inexpensive way to get some pretty substantial global coverage and, oh, by the way, if you win the competition there’s some capital there as well,” said Harris.
Ideally, ESPN-style coverage would be broadcast online to the world. Cities would cheer on their teams and follow the brackets to the final head-to-head match. Major problems would be tackled and solved!
That’s if, of course, everything goes as planned.
“The framework is there and now it’s just a function of locking in the actual date,” said Harris. “for the most part, the planning is pretty well done.”
It’s a while — although not too long — between now and October, and the competition is one of the first major efforts being undertaken by the accelerator since its launch in January. There are, as with any start-up endeavor, no guarantees of success. And the tech community events calendar is pretty crowded with meet-ups and hackathons. But Harris and Burfield insist their competition is different, offering the thrill and cross-over appeal of competition along with D.C.’s unique pool of talent and resources.
“As we thought about what makes D.C. unique, we kept coming back to the fact that we have such deep domain expertise in these grand challenge areas,” said Harris. “If you were going to hold a competition and focus on those areas you would want to naturally do it in D.C.”
The 1776 team has entered into partnerships with startup-focused media and events company TechCocktail, brand strategy firm iStrategyLabs, and the D.C. government for initial funding.
That last partnership is important. 1776 has, since its founding, received a great deal of support from the city as it works to bolster its technology hub credentials. It started with an infusion of $200,000 (with some very large and intricate strings, including that 1776 stay in D.C. for five years). Since then, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has made a number of appearances on 1776’s behalf, including one at the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin. The city was among the first in line to write a check for The Challenge Cup — this time for $180,000.
“It was an opportunity that we’ve never seen before and one that we were very delighted to pursue and support,” said David Zipper, director of the city’s business development and strategy when asked about the Challenge Cup funding. “We’re now going to be able to talk in Berlin and Mumbai about Washington, D.C. as a technology hub.”
As with the initial grant, the Challenge Cup money comes with strings as well, says Zipper. Ten percent of the total number of passes for the week-long event in May will be given to D.C. youth, and the events calendar will include a D.C. business expo to showcase local technology companies. “We made very sure there were requirements of that agreement that will create value for the businesses … and the residents here in D.C.”
For Harris, Burfield and the 1776 team, the competition, with a budget expected to be “somewhere north of $1 million,” as Harris put it, has capitalistic as well as altruistic goals. This is for and about entrepreneurs after all.
“We’re always really careful to make sure we don’t do anything that requires ongoing financial support from the city,” said Burfield. “It’s wonderful to have the city be willing to go first, but we certainly want these ultimately to be private-sector funded and private-sector led initiatives.”
There’s an additional component to this gathering: immigration — specifically the battle for talent. It’s a topic as hot as the weather in Washington this summer. Harris and Burfield emphasized that, while the competition may be organized out of and hosted in D.C., this wasn’t part of a stealth talent grab on the part of the U.S.
Peter Fischer, head of economic affairs at the German embassy in the District, has been working with 1776 to realize the Challenge Cup competition in Berlin. Asked about the potential for brain drain, Fischer said it wasn’t a concern.
“That’s kind of a zero-sum thinking that doesn’t make that much sense for the reality of business today,” said Fischer. “German start-ups are very interested in the U.S. market, so that’s why we have a very good and constructive relationship with 1776.”
Ultimately, says 1776’s Harris, the competition is about cutting through the mindset that only certain cities can function as hubs for technological innovation and growth.
“Start-ups used to have to pick a city,” said Harris, ticking off well-known tech hubs such as Silicon Valley. “It’s not true anymore. Start-ups don’t have to pick a city. They’re actually multi-city companies and they’ll go where the opportunities are and where the talent is. And I love the idea that this is literally a global competition to say that we’ve got really smart people that have identified ways that our most broken industries can be fixed. Being able to highlight them and showcase the breadth and the depth and get people thinking in a new way about innovation — I love all of that.”
Now, let’s see who shows up.