Monday, April 14, 2014
Eight minutes for $10,000. That's three minutes to pitch your idea, five minutes to answer questions from the judges, and one shot at turning your startup into the next big thing in business. This is DIG South's Wild Pitch competition.
The crowd begins to take their seats in the Charleston Music Hall, where earlier in the day SouthYeast Labs took home the top prize in Wild Pitch's student competition. SouthYeast is a two-person operation out of Clemson that cultivates local yeast for homebrewers and microbreweries. The prize for the competition was an investment of $2,500, but that was doubled after a member of the audience stood up and agreed to match it. That's how fast things can escalate with this crowd of investors and venture capitalists from all over the Southeast.
Once the five judges take their places on the stage and the hum of the crowd dies down, it's time to meet our competitors.
First up is Alumnify from Columbia. Alumnify is a fundraiser platform that allows colleges, universities and student clubs to better organize their alumni and connect with donors. The service utilizes LinkedIn and several schools throughout the Southeast are currently signed up for a six-month trial membership.
Next up is Mana's Calorie Cloud program. While definitely the most philanthropic of the startups presenting today, it is also the most difficult to understand in a business sense. Calorie Cloud wants nothing less than to help better manage America's current obesity epidemic while simultaneously attacking hunger in the developing world. Through a process of selling or trading in calories that you would have otherwise consumed, the equivalent of that food is instead transferred to those who need it. While definitely a noble venture, the judges question exactly how Calorie Cloud would support its efforts, nonetheless turn a profit.
Following Calorie Cloud is Care.IT (pronounced like the vegetable). Care.IT hopes to provide patients with virtual health care consultations via their computers or tablets. No more crowded waiting rooms. No more driving across town for an appointment. MUSC's Department of Nursing has a similar program that serves those who are physically unable to maintain their regular doctor visits as well as allowing doctors and nurses to monitor patients remotely.
Third and fourth are the presenters from Mount Pleasant's own Harbor Accelerator. Krissa Watry from Dynepic begins her presentation by filling the stage with various toys. Some are her own creations, some aren't. It may seem a bit unorthodox, but Watry, an MIT grad who recently watched one of her creations dock with the International Space Station, knows what she's doing. During the demonstration of Dynepic's Sensibots, toys that react to their environment and communicate with one another across the room or around the world, you see the judges really start to take notice. Then, with a mix of tech-biz buzzwords and good, old-fashioned salesmanship, Watry closes her presentation with a line that leaves the judges smiling: “We've seen 'the Internet of Things.' I want to create 'the Internet of Play.'”
The second group from the Harbor Accelerator is Eatabit. Clad in an eye-catching Hawaiian shirt, Eatabit's Greg Oleksiak provides the evening's most colorful presentation in more ways than one. Eatabit allows customers to place their restaurant orders via text. Once sent, orders come out of a specialized printer located in the restaurant. Oleksiak tells the audience to look over the takeout menus they were handed earlier when they took their seats. As the crowd begins to text in using the number provided on the menus, the printer in Oleksiak's hand begins to spit out order after order. Oleksiak's routine relies heavily on humor, taking a few seconds of the little time he has to jokingly chastise people in the audience for sending prank texts before he receives one final order for the Pu Pu Platter. A voice offstage ensures him that it's on the menu. Eatabit has engaged the audience and even penned a two-year deal with the RiverDogs' Joe P. Riley, Jr. Park, but the judges seem unsure if the system has the ability to catch on with everyday users.
After that rousing performance, we have Podanize, a free online service that allows parents to better organize their schedules and the schedules of their kids. While the product seems useful and the pitch is solid, it lacks the showmanship of Eatabit and the vision of Dynepic. Steven Sacks of Podanize assures the judges that they can integrate their Google and iCal calendars, but they question, with so many other options already on the market, what makes Podanize stand out.
The final two presenters of the evening are similar in a lot of ways. They are both pitching apps that promise to change the way we experience events. They are also probably the two best salesmen we've seen this evening. Presenter Trey Pringle appeals to the judges' sense of nostalgia when introducing Sovi, an app that collects and displays listings for local events. “Years from now, you're not going to remember a picture you took of a nice meal you had,” said Pringle. “What you will remember is going to a show with your friends, and maybe meeting your future wife there. That's what Sovi can do for you.”
Last onstage is Justin VanBogart pitching Stre.am, a high-quality live video streaming app that allows users to share video through their iPhones. VanBogart seems as if he plans to win this contest through sheer force of presence alone. He's clearly studied a few of Steve Jobs' old product unveiling videos and has nailed that whole forward-looking visionary persona.
Now that the pitches are over, the presenters have their phones confiscated and are led outside of the auditorium, while the judges deliberate before the audience. They start out by cutting Alumnify, Calorie Cloud and Podanize. Care.IT is the next to go, deemed too far ahead of its time to work in the current health care market. And with that, half of the competitors are down. Sovi falls when a judge points out that there is another existing app that automatically gathers local event information from other social media sources and doesn't rely on promoters to contact the app's curators. That leaves our final three: Dynepic, Eatabit and Stre.am. The judges poll the audience. “Raise your hand if you'd use Eatabit to order dinner,” one calls out. Members of the crowd begin to shout back their opinions and a not-so-subtle discourse begins to open up. Finally, it's put to a vote.
The evening's most outspoken judge, Manoj Govindan, Chairman of the Business Advisory Committee for the City of Charlotte, votes Dynepic. Next is the Director at Revolution Ventures, Bobby Ocampo. He gains a smattering of applause as he picks Eatabit. It seems like we may have a race on our hands until Dynepic claims the next two votes from Terry Cox of the Business Innovation Group and David Mendez of Capital A Partners. The South Carolina Secretary of Commerce Robert M. Hitt III adds a second vote for Eatabit, but it's too late. Dynepic has the majority and all that's left is to hand over the check.
The startups are lined up onstage for one final round of applause, each group having had an amazing showing. But the excitement isn't over. While the winner is already decided, there is one final twist. Judge Mendez takes the microphone and asks the seemingly absurd question, “Would anyone like to match the $10,000 prize investment?” Everyone turns in their seats, craning to see if there are any takers. One man in the back stands up and raises his hand and then another. The grand prize just tripled in less than 10 seconds. The new investors join the contestants onstage and the winner is announced. Krissa Watry takes the oversized check made out to Dynepic and realizes that things are just getting started.
See a video of the judges' final deliberation at the bottom of our homepage.
Dustin Waters is one of our staff reporters and the staff copy editor. Follow Dustin on Twitter @MNreports for more news updates