Reflections on the Challenge Cup Semi-Finals, the Startup Olympics for Change

Last night I was fortunate to attend the 1776-logo-red 1776 Challenge Cup Semi-Finals for Startups in the Cities, Education, Energy, Food and Transportation Event held at the historic Lincoln Theater in Washington, DC (the other semi-final for Health, Money and Security was held on June 8) . For those who may not be familiar, 1776 is one of the world’s leading business incubators helping over 200 member startups”.. transform industries that impact millions of lives every day—education, energy & sustainability, health, transportation and cities.” PCDN is proud to be based at 1776, and have the learning, networking and inspiration we have received in scaling our work to be invaluable.

The Challenge Cup is an annual event where the 1776 team and partners travel to over 45 cities around the world where over 1000 startups compete in regional competitions with the winners selected to attend the final rounds of the competition in DC.  As 1776 explains the Challenge Competition, “A worldwide tournament for the most promising, world-changing startups to win cash prizes, make international connections and share their vision on a global stage.” The Challenge Cup can be seen as perhaps the Startup Olympics for Companies Seeking to Change the World.

Last night’s semi-finals featured a dazzling array of companies seeking to affect positive change while seeking to address essential global challenges ranging from improving access to education, improve outcomes for smallholder farmers, and to eliminating environmental waste from oil production. Each startup was given two minutes to make a pitch about their business (which was carefully timed, if they went over a gong sound was played). This was followed by up to two minutes of questioning by the judging panel who would be selecting among the many inspiring semi-finalists to have four that would move on to the finals night that take place.

Over 30 pitches were made with companies coming from Kenya, Pakistan, Colombia, Ecuador, The Netherlands, the US and many other regions (for a full list see http://www.1776.vc/challenge-cup/challenge-cup-global-finals-festival-competitors/). The most compelling presentations usually started with an explanation of the problem that the startup seeks to solve and frequently told by presenting the story of one of their users. One of the most powerful stories was by the founder of logo who described his challenge when he was a firefighter in training and was injured. He spent a long time in the hospital and upon his release was unable to find an apartment given his poor financial history from the hospital stay, despite having a voucher for rent for one year. He founded the company to help people easily find an apartment with 24 hours of signing up for the site and if for someone doesn’t qualify to provide a clear explanation of what actions need to be taken. In some ways NoAppFee.Com is like the Uber for housing.

It would be impossible to cover all the startups that presented last night. I will say the presentations ranged from very technical, to serious, to hilarious. One startup from Pakistan, CowLar called itself the “Fitbit for Cows“. The company offers a very affordable service for farmers to monitor their cows through real time tracking, SMS updates and has shown dramatic improvements in milk production. There was a fair amount of laughter during the questioning period from the judges, about how the system communicated with the cows (in reality the farmers receive SMS updates and then obviously take action if a Cow is sick, moving outside of a property limit, etc.).

indexOne of my favorite startups is from Colombia (where I frequently travel) was Agruppa. The rapidly growing company leverages “leverages mobile phone technology to empower small food vendors in low income neighborhoods by providing them with fruits and vegetables at wholesale prices.”  Having shopped in many of these small mom and pop stores myself (according to the founder there are 340,000 such stores that sell 70% of the food in the country), their market potential is huge. I did speak with the founder and the problem they are solving is helping small storeowners get fresh produce at much cheaper prices, that is directly delivered to their store. This helps them not only provide better quality food, but also saves them time by not having to go to central markets (often some distance away) to buy food.

logoOne company from Kenya was Ma3Route is improving transportation in one of Africa’s most crowded cities. The founder said the average person in Nairobi spends three hours each day in transit/traffic, which adds up to one month of lost time per year. This has huge economic, human and environmental costs. As the company explains, “Ma3Route aims to make traveling easier in developing countries by democratizing timely transport information. We hope to bring greater sanity to the roads and inform city planning and transport regulation in emerging economies through the provision of transport data and trend analysis.”

There were many other startup presentations including, Route4U which is developing the first GPS system with limited mobility, to Shippify, which is revolutionizing logistics and shipping. The company had the best tagline of the night, “Get Ship Done.” One other company was Morigna, a high quality coding boot camp that trains world class developers and has a 99% job placement right for their graduates to date. One wonderful company that I use on a very frequent basis, is Transitscreen which offers real time display of transportation options to help people make informed decisions and reduce congestion. Another company having a positive impact on the world is Wefarm a peer to peer network helping smallholder farmers by connecting them to “vital information” to learn, share and improve their production.

In the questioning period from the judges, the most frequent questions focused on how fast a company was scaling, more details about the product, and potential market and/or competition. They had a very tough job selecting one winner in each of the four categories to advance to the final round.

While not all companies will be successful in the long-term (I hope all of these are), one of the best aspects of the night was the sense of community among those in attendance. Whether a pitch was perfect, or had a few faltering moments, this was no American Idol in terms of a ruthless competition. The energy was one of support, and encouragement and that all presenting and attending are deeply committed to finding and supporting market based solutions to some of the world’s most challenging societal problems.

There was a wonderful after-party where I had to chance to chat with some of the founders and also a great networking event for the DC startup community in general. I would encourage readers to take a few moments to check out each of the companies that competed this week, look into their mission and impact to date. By participating in the Challenge Cup, the companies are seeking to gain greater exposure, investment to scale their work, partners and more.  Stay tuned to 1776’s  Challenge Cup Blog for more updates as well as the hashtag #1776challenge.

Here are some photos of the night:

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Craig Zelizer

Craig Zelizer

Dr. Craig Zelizer is the Founder of PCDN.global, which connects a global community of changemakers to the tools, community and opportunities to build careers of impact and scale change. He has strong experience in the development sector, academia and social entrepreneurship. From 2005 to 2016 he served as a professor in the Conflict Resolution program at Georgetown University (where he still teaches). He has led trainings, workshops and consultancies in over 20 countries organizations including with USIP, USAID, CRS, Rotary International and others. Craig is a recognized leader in the social sector field. He has received several awards including George Mason’s School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution’s alumni of the year award and an alumni career achievement award from Central European University. Dr. Zelizer spent two years in Hungary as Fulbright Scholar and was a Boren Fellow in Bosnia. He has published widely on peacebuilding, entrepreneurship, and innovation in higher education.
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