Published: April 18, 2024 By

The Foodwise startup team, Jennifer Bundrant (Leeds School of Business, '23 alum.), Hashirr Lukmahn (College of Engineering and Applied Science), Emma Bonerb (Leeds School of Business) and Byron Patten (Leeds School of Business) pose with friends and family and their $100,000 prize check. Photo: Glenn Asakawa, CU Boulder.

The 2024 New Venture Challenge (NVC) culminated in a final showcase on April 17 in front of a live audience cheering on the University of Colorado Boulder’s next big innovations. At an event filled with great ideas and even greater entrepreneurial spirit, five teams competed for $165,000 in prize money. 

Audience members watch a presentationCU Boulder Chancellor Phil DiStefano welcomed attendees to the Boulder Theater to celebrate the 17th year of CU Boulder’s elite entrepreneurial competition. “The New Venture Challenge is a vibrant and supportive launchpad for students, faculty and staff to learn how to make a tremendous impact through new startups and nonprofits and a chance to launch their new businesses with transformational funding,” said DiStefano.

DiStefano told the packed theater that, as a top-ranked collegiate entrepreneurial competition, NVC has launched 1,176 new ventures and distributed $1.4 million in funding over its history with winners representing a range of industries, including environmental sustainability, healthcare, music and entertainment, food and agricultural and manufacturing. 

He introduced Stan Hickory, director of NVC and the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative, which “brings together and elevates efforts happening across campus and the community to create massive impact,” said DiStefano. “Through interdisciplinary work and collaboration, CU Boulder is expanding beyond the classroom and labs to enrich communities and address pressing societal changes through entrepreneurship.”

Hickory told the crowd that the five finalists sharing the stage at the event emerged from a field of 92 ventures and represent every corner of the university and the larger community. “The New Venture Challenge is truly the crown jewel of what we do,” said Hickory. “I love seeing the Front Range entrepreneurial community assemble at the Boulder Theater to support students, faculty and staff as they launch their ventures,” said Hickory.

Co-emcees Dianne Myles, CEO of Dope Mom Life and Olivia Omega, senior director of marketing and communications of the Denver Scholarship Foundation, introduced the judges of the live venture pitches, including Wanda James, CU regent and CEO of Simply Pure; Natty Zola, partner at Matchstick Ventures; Kevin Allen, COO of Windpact and co-founder of Access Mode and Afshin Safavi, founder, CEO and president of Colorado Health and Tech Centers.

Representatives from five teams pitched new solutions for reducing food waste, expanding home ownership, improving hotel pricing, detecting soil health and tech-assisted sports management.

Judges praised each venture’s presentation and pressed each team with questions about their business concepts. After a deliberation period, the judges’ picks were announced, and confetti rained down on the stage. Each finalist walked away with a check—the two top teams netted $145,000 in combined winnings, and the additional three teams split $20,000 in prize money. 

Innovations emerging across the CU ecosystem

A young man and woman present to a live audienceThe diversity of this year’s teams and ventures is a testament to the success of the growing cross-campus ecosystem and programming that supports the development of innovative and entrepreneurial ideas. “We have teams representing the entirety of the entrepreneurial ecosystem here at CU Boulder—undergrad students, graduate students, faculty and community members through the Embark program,” said Hickory. “What an amazing depth and breadth of entrepreneurs and ventures… and to see which companies are in the finals is super exciting.”

Take, for example, FoodWise, a venture that was born out of last fall's Sustainability Hackathon. “These were students who didn’t have an idea or a team,” said Hickory. “They came to the hackathon and saw a problem and came together to find a solution.” Brainstorming after that session, co-founders Emma Bonerb and Byron Patten initially considered starting a company that would mitigate food waste in restaurant inventory and distribution. But after talking to industry experts, “We realized the bigger problem was actually the overpreparation of ingredients rather than inventory going bad. That sparked our current concept,” said Bonerb.

This year’s general competition winners included finalists in two earlier NVC competitions; FoodWise won $3,000 and AFFIX was a finalist at the Women Founders Competition hosted by the Deming Center for Entrepreneurship, and was a finalist in the inaugural Deep Tech Competition hosted by Venture Partners at CU Boulder.

The next generation of founders and funders

The New Venture Challenge is a signature program of the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative and is CU Boulder’s “flight simulator” for those striving to make real-world impact through new endeavors. The program gives aspiring problem-solvers and creatives a chance to build impactful non-profit or for-profit ventures through entrepreneurial events and programming, community support, mentorship and—ultimately—the chance to compete for funding.

The caliber of past NVC participants over its 17-year history and the proven strength of startup creation at CU Boulder has attracted entities like sponsor Kickstart, which brought $144,000 of direct investment to this year’s top two teams. Hickory called their partnership in the event a “game-changer.”

Kickstart is a seed-stage venture capital firm “on a mission to help build great startups in the Mountain West,” said partner Dalton Wright. At the NVC finals, they launched their ‘14 Founders’ initiative which will ultimately inject $2 million of fresh capital into first founders in the state. “The focus of 14 Founders is to inspire, educate, discover and connect the next generation of tech founders and venture capitalists in Colorado while also celebrating the pioneers of the ecosystem and learning from their stories,” said Wright.

Learning and support to last a lifetime

In his remarks, DiStefano acknowledged the broader impact of entrepreneurship programming. “It’s impossible to calculate the valuable internal benefits the program has built for hundreds who have participated—those problem-solving, communication and collaboration skills that will serve New Venture Challenge alumni throughout their personal and professional careers.”

Those advantages are keenly felt by this year’s NVC teams. “I've realized that CU Boulder really is the perfect place to become an entrepreneur,” said FoodWise founder Bonerb. “I am surrounded by so many valuable resources and people, but most importantly, a community who wants to see us succeed.” 

Refr Sports founder Sorock agreed. “As much as we want to build a successful company, ultimately, we are just looking to learn and grow as people, entrepreneurs and leaders. The NVC platform was an amazing opportunity for us to surround ourselves with like-minded people who are dedicated to being involved in our growth and progress. For this, I am extremely grateful.”

A constellation of world-class entrepreneurship classes, mentorship and programs like NVC have put CU Boulder among the top universities for entrepreneurship. Hickory said the NVC program is so successful, in part, due to the guidance of over 350 mentors and more than 125 judges. “The community support goes far beyond the finals,” he said. 

“To me, that is the magic of the ecosystem here at CU Boulder and the value of the NVC. We provide a place for impactful ideas to be born and a mechanism to launch [them] to create impact.”

2024 NVC General Competition Prizes

Team poses with giant prize-winning check and the CU Boulder mascot Chip.

$100,000 First Place Prize: FoodWise

Team (from left to right in photo): Jennifer Bundrant, (Leeds School of Business, '23), Hashirr Lukmahn, (College of Engineering and Applied Science), Emma Bonerb (Leeds School of Business), Byron Patten (Leeds School of Business).

FoodWise wants to boost the food industry’s sustainability and profitability with a software platform that helps restaurants predict food demand in real time using weather, past sales and other external factors in order to minimize waste and maximize profitability. Bonerb said FoodWise is targeting 276,000 full-service restaurants and that dozens have already expressed interest in the concept that could save them at least $1,300 monthly.

The FoodWise team discovered that the U.S. restaurant industry produces 22 to 33 billion tons of food waste annually, which translates into 170 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions. “Something that a lot of people may not realize is the magnitude of the environmental impact that food waste has on our planet,” said Bonerb. “Our team hopes to use our platform to help restaurants better understand the impact of their food waste both financially and environmentally…we also want to empower restaurants to reduce their costs in any way they can so their business can succeed.”

$30,000 Second Place Prize: Refr Sports

Additionally: $14,000 ‘14 Founders Award’ and $1,000 Audience Choice Award

Huck Sorock (College of Media, Communications and Information, '23)

Refr Sports brings a spark of technology to transform the referee industry by providing an easy, universal way for sports organizations, referees and referee assignors to get what they need.

Sorock founded the company as a junior at CU Boulder. By then, he’d had plenty of experience playing hockey and refereeing high school games in Minnesota, his home state. “[I] realized there were tons of problems with the industry… and I was blown away by how archaic the existing systems in the market were,” he said. 

Sorock wants to “bring the referee business out of the dark ages,” to where most contractor-based industries already have shifted. “I set out on this journey trying to solve a problem that I had experienced firsthand. Officials are an often overlooked aspect of sports, and my end goal is to Gigify or Uber-fy the industry… It’s a great way to make money, be active and stay involved in the sports you love.”

$10,000 Third Place Prize:

Team: Dan Zhang (Leeds School of Business), David Li (City University of Hong Kong), Matt Schwartz (Sage Hospitality)

Using an AI-powered, dynamic pricing subscription service, is building the world’s most advanced revenue management service for increasing revenue in the hotel industry. 

Zhang and Schwartz met while walking their kids to school and realized they shared a desire to update pricing dynamics in the multi-billion dollar hotel industry with a fully autonomous service that responds in real-time to multiple market dynamics. “Because the price should be right,” they said. 

$5,000 Fourth Place Prize: BioSensor Solutions

Team: Carl Kalin and David Beitz (Venture Partners at CU Boulder

BioSensor Solutions provides a low-cost, biodegradable, 2D-printed sensor that measures microbial activity in the soil. Data directly from sensors in the field–invented by Gregory Whiting (Mechanical Engineering) and Madhur Atreya (Mechanical Engineering)—provide real-time insights into soil health.

The sensors could shift how growers track, measure and respond to soil health, ideally helping farmers conserve resources and increase yields. The technology could help address global greenhouse gas emissions and the need to feed an additional one billion people by 2050. “Both of us were looking for something to really make a difference,” said Beitz. 

BioSensor Solutions is part of the first cohort of the Embark Deep Tech Startup Creator launched by Venture Partners at CU Boulder in 2023.

$5,000 Fifth Place: AFFIX 

Team: Jamie Saunders (Leeds School of Business), Benjamin Asser (Law School), Daniel Collins (Leeds School of Business

AFFIX wants to change the way we invest in real estate. Powered by prefabrication and a creative approach to zoning code, the venture is pioneering a new type of real estate investment designed for desirable vacation destinations.

Saunders’ started on the path to founding AFFIX when helping her sister with the fraught process of trying to buy her first home in a hot real estate market. “She and I researched every ownership option we could think of, then I dove into the zoning code to pinpoint precisely where the roadblocks for these different options lie,” said Saunders. “Owning a home is one of the cornerstones of the American dream, and we want to create more paths into this sort of investment.”