Comfortable and confident on stage with a panel of judges on one side and hundreds of eager faces in the audience, Steven Dourmashkin tapped the brightly colored plastic rings on his hand against spots of color on his T-Shirt. With each tap, a new tone rang out.
The crowd erupted in “ooohs,” cheers and claps as it became clear that this aerospace engineering graduate student and lifelong drummer had made the world and all its varied and colorful surfaces his own personal keyboard.
After a handful of CU Boulder teams pitched their businesses before a panel of friendly but intense judges (think Shark Tank but quite a bit nicer), team Specdrums won the grand prize of $75,000 in the 10th annual New Venture Challenge (NVC) championships, held for the first time at the Boulder Theater on April 4.
With that, Dourmashkin and his team are on track to get the product into the hands of schoolchildren, musicians and other creative types around the world. In between congratulatory hugs and posing for photos, Dourmashkin said the cash prize will allow him to hire more people and create more inventory.
“We can scale up a lot more,” said Dourmashkin, who started Specdrums as an undergrad at Cornell University. “We haven’t raised any money yet. This is big.”
Second place went to HASEL artificial muscles, a group of CU Boulder researchers working on a prototype for soft-tissue robots. Other top-five winners include: BeautiBook, an app for creative makeup enthusiasts; Statehill, an interactive database of international legislative information and updates for lobbyists and others; and the Cannabis Marketing Association, aimed at sharing best practices in marketing cannabis, with its many varied rules and regulations across the country.
Before the winners were announced, Zayo Group CEO and founder and a local sponsor of the NVC prize money Dan Caruso said he saw “real businesses” emerging.
“Some already have revenue, they have momentum, they’ve raised money,” Caruso said. “I’m glad I’m not in the seat of the judges. It’s going to be a hard one to figure out.”
The New Venture Challenge is CU Boulder’s go-to program for aspiring entrepreneurs. Participants represent majors and departments from across the university. From undergraduates to graduates, PhD candidates to postdocs, and faculty to staff, everyone is invited to come watch and support or actually pitch their idea.
For 10 years, the NVC has been CU Boulder’s entrepreneurial “flight simulator,” giving teams the chance to build a startup and gain outstanding support and mentorship in a world-class community of entrepreneurs, startups and established businesses in the university’s backyard.
The NVC is divided into tracks including general, information technology, research & development, and creative industries. Track finalists and the NVC champion receive award money. In addition, NVC awards a Social Impact Prize, which encourages teams to focus on social and environmental responsibility, and the Women’s Entrepreneurship Prize, which encourages and promotes female entrepreneurs.
Some 117 teams participated in the 2018 challenge beginning in September, with the top finalists competing for the grand prize this week. Over the past decade, 25 teams that rose up through the NVC championships have gone on to win $13.4 million in additional funding.
Brad Feld, another generous sponsor, managing director of Foundry Group and co-founder of Techstars, participated in a Q&A with Caruso moderated by emcee, law professor and Director of the Entrepreneurship Initiative at Silicon Flatirons Center Brad Bernthal, who noted that the event at the art deco Boulder Theater as a sort of “Carnegie Hall of Boulder’s startup scene.” Caruso added that “success stories feed other success stories” and that the Front Range offers a unique opportunity for entrepreneurs.
“The whole corridor (represents) a whole opportunity to start up and scale businesses of multiple different types…that touch all parts of the world,” Caruso said.
Organizers also had some exciting news to share about next year: a $200,000 match for prize money. Some people pledged support of $10,000 or more on the spot.
"I've never seen anything like that at a CU event before — the excitement of the night, the energy. It was palpable,” said Ali LeBeau Greenstein, New Venture Challenge director. “The more funding the NVC has, the more we can support these amazing ideas that are coming out of the university."
In the Q&A, Feld said the future looks bright for the New Venture Challenge—as long as relationships between established entrepreneurs and newcomers to the game continue to be forged and cultivated.
“An essential component ... is that this spans across generations,” he said. “A powerful thing to focus on ... is to make sure we’re really laying down connective tissue between all the people.”
Feld, who was involved in a similar initiative at MIT in the past, encouraged CU Boulder’s NVC to start a database of companies born through the NVC so that generations of entrepreneurs can continue to learn from one another and support each other.
“CU can really be the hub for that for a lot of the community,” Feld said.