On two exciting nights of pitches and prizes, judges gave feedback and funding to New Venture Challenge (NVC) competitors. On the first night, female founders presented ideas and, on the second, the ventures were climate-focused. Ten startups brought a broad range of ideas to the stage, including how to live and garden more sustainably, how to deal with the downsides of social media, how to offer practical prosthetics for kids—and sustainable water filters and hydroponic produce for all. Across the two events, eight teams took home a total of $20,000 to develop their ideas further.
Now in its 16th year, NVC is CU Boulder’s top, cross-campus entrepreneurial program and competition, giving innovators the chance to build a startup with ongoing support and mentorship. This year’s overall competitor pool is 75 ventures strong, 40 of which went head-to-head in the female-founder and climate-centric special competitions. That number was narrowed down to the 10 startups that shared their ideas at the Imig Music Building and Google headquarters in Boulder on March 8 and 9.
“That’s a pretty big slice of the entrepreneurial ecosystem on campus,” said Stan Hickory, director of both the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative and NVC. He said the competition brings CU Boulder students with “grit and ‘can do’ attitude” into the university’s entrepreneurial pipeline, where ventures take shape. “NVC is the aggregator of all of the great entrepreneurial thinking and learning that’s happening across campus. It’s the one place they can all come, not only to get additional programming but also world-class mentorship from the community.”
Female founders in the limelight
The first round of NVC special prize judging began on International Women’s Day with five enthusiastic female founders presenting a diverse group of ventures to a panel of all-female judges. Hickory told the crowd that fewer than two percent of all venture capital allocated in the U.S. last year went to female-founded companies. “I hope that events like this will change that narrative,” he said. Hickory expressed excitement that 25 of the 40 teams competing across the two special competitions had women in the lead–double last year’s number. “A huge initiative for us is getting more women to think about entrepreneurship,” he said.
Those teams included Sam Gibson, co-founder of the first-prize-winning venture H.EX (Hydroponics Excellence), a wall-mounted indoor garden geared toward urban consumers. Gibson said the idea for H.EX was hatched in a class that introduced her to NVC. “Not a lot of us have tons of business experience, so being able to do something like this was really fun and exciting and it pushed us out of our comfort zone,” she said. “[NVC] is a great opportunity to meet with different people and network, and it’s awesome to practice pitching our idea and to see that our product actually might have a future.”
Gibson also enjoyed sharing the stage with other female entrepreneurs and interacting with an all-female panel of judges. “As an engineer, there’s not a ton of females in that environment, especially mechanical engineering, so being able to see other women present and be passionate about something was really cool,” she said. “I also love that all the judges were women and hearing their success stories with their businesses was very encouraging.”
First Place: H.EX (Hydroponic Excellence), $5,000
No time, no space, no green thumb? No problem. You can still grow fresh produce in your own home, according to H.EX, a hydroponics growing system. Their unique kits yield a year-round supply of edible plants that H.EX says are healthier and more climate-friendly than industrial crops that rely on chemicals and excessive watering. An app would alert users when their green babies need some T.L.C.
Second Place: Limbfinity, $3,000
Nearly 50,000 children in the U.S. are in need of a lower limb prosthetic and they should be prioritized in the development of adjustable prosthetics, say Limbfinity’s founders. Improperly fitting prosthetics can cause children a host of secondary health conditions, so the company’s engineers have created OneLeg (an adjustable height lower-limb prosthetic pylon) and OneFoot (an adjustable length prosthetic foot) to reduce the number of components needed during developmental growth.
Third Place: NoSo November, $2,000
Social venture NoSo November challenges students to take individual action to reclaim their power from social media platforms by taking a month-long detox and focusing on healthy coping mechanisms instead. NoSo’s short film and interactive newsletters are a by-youth, for-youth program educating students on the potentially harmful effects of social media, which data shows can cause and worsen body dysmorphia, loneliness, isolation, anxiety and depression.
Close-up on climate-focused ventures
During the second round of NVC special prize judging, the competition heated up with calls to action and a lot of optimism about potential solutions to climate change.“The time for climate tech is now,” said Emily Vogt, event emcee and director of venture development at Venture Partners at CU Boulder. “And there’s nobody better than this next generation to push that effort forward.”
The five teams pushing forward from ‘idea to impact’ ranged from an app offering sustainable lifestyle tips to technology for xeriscaping and portable water filtration. “We want to create the scaffolding for those ventures to be formed around solving some of our big climate issues. And these special competitions are one way of not only bringing that to the forefront of everyone's thinking but also to celebrate and fund those initiatives,” said Hickory.
First Place: ClimateScaping, $4,000
Combating climate change while boosting curb appeal is this water-wise landscaping startup’s dual mission. The ClimateScaping system starts with educating customers about sustainable water practices, and then designs, installs and maintains front and backyards with native, drought-tolerant plants.
Cameron Klein, co-founder of the first-prize-winning venture, told a packed room to “Turn off your sprinklers” and let their xeriscape design system save average homeowners 75,000 gallons of water annually. “The way we’re doing things needs to change and, if there are large bands of people all doing a small part, that can have a huge impact on our environment,” he said. “We want to help save water in a fun, beautiful way and that’s really exciting.”
Klein credited the NVC program with helping to move ClimateScaping’s ingenuity toward entrepreneurial success. “It’s totally been the coolest experience of my college career and great to see all the people in the Boulder community volunteering their time just to help students. The skills I’ve learned in a few months I feel like are really years of experience,” he said, “I think it’s the best program that CU offers.”
Second Place (tie): Piña, $2,000
Piña designs biodegradable and sustainable hair ties made from pineapple silk and natural rubber, making use of pineapple ‘waste’ to create soft and eco-friendly hair ties while eliminating waste from millions of artificial hair bands lost or tossed each day.
Second Place (tie): H.EX (Hydroponics Excellence), $2,000
H.EX were winners once again in the second night of competition. Climate competition judges also saw promise in their innovative wall-mounted design.
Third Place (tie): Water Recovery Systems (WRS), $1,000
PureSip is a water-filtration system in a lid that fits most reusable water bottles and purifies water while drinking. Using UV LED technology, the filter kills 99.9 percent of germs with no wait and eliminates the need for single use plastic bottles.
Third Place (tie): Ecovolve, $1,000
Ecovolve’s dream is to bridge the gap between people and nature by focusing on daily habits. Many people who are interested in building a sustainable lifestyle don’t know where to start and this app aims to simplify climate action by providing content that is trustworthy, actionable and positive.
The first-place winners of both events earned a spot in the NVC general competition semi-finals; final judging will take place at the Boulder Theater on April 12 where judges will award $100,000 in venture funding.