What if improving one’s athletic performance through supplements was simpler and more affordable? What if instead of producing emissions, airplanes could take carbon out of the air? And what if learning a new language was as fun as listening to music?
These ideas and more are no longer “what ifs,” but realities in the making, thanks to many aspiring entrepreneurs who pitched their products at the 16th annual New Venture Challenge (NVC) finals on April 12. This high-energy public event filled Boulder Theater on an unseasonably warm spring evening, where the audience watched five startup ventures compete for a portion of $100,000 in prize money to help them reach the next step in their success.
Personal athletic supplement company CLD-9 (“Cloud 9”) secured first place, winning half of the prize money ($50,000), followed by second place award winner and next-generation carbon fiber creator Mach Electric Aerospace, LLC, which took home $20,000. Music-centric language learning app LingDisco placed third ($15,000), followed by AI-powered landscaping company ClimateScaping ($10,000) and pineapple and banana fiber textile creators Piña Designs ($5,000).
This annual event is itself “as much a part of CU as it is part of the Boulder startup community,” said Stan Hickory, director of the CU Boulder Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative. Since its inception in 2009, more than 1,000 CU Boulder startups have participated in CU Boulder's premier entrepreneurial program and competition, which has awarded over $1 million in funding.
2023 will be the first year NVC takes it to the next step, said Hickory: The top 10 ventures from the NVC community will participate in the first ever Demo Day later in April, where they can pitch for even more investment opportunities.
This year was also the first time that a new emcee took the stage: Dianne Myles, CEO of Dope Mom Life, Denver Business Journal's “40 under 40” and a Colorado Women's Chamber of Commerce top 25 Most Powerful Women in Business. She was joined by an all-star, all-female panel of four judges: Jane Miller, CEO of Rudi’s Bakery; Nancy Pierce, president and managing director at KELD LLC; Elle Bruno, managing director of the Techstars Boulder Accelerator; and Susan (Wolff) Alban, chief people officer and an operating partner at Renegade Partners.
Faster, stronger, lighter
Teams were judged on the idea, whether it provided a solution to a need, whether there is a clear way to make money or create an impact, the team’s resources, their presentation and many more considerations.
First-place winner CLD-9 addressed the growing desire for simplification and customization within the athletic supplement industry. College-level and intermediate athletes looking to improve their performance often spend countless hours researching supplements, ending up with dozens of bottles in their cabinets, which may include ingredients they don’t want to consume or that may cause adverse effects when combined.
What if athletes could take just one dose each day? By answering a short series of diagnostic questions, combined with the power of scientific research and artificial intelligence, CLD-9 creates a safe, customized supplement packet for any athlete at an affordable price.
“It's a one-stop-shop where scientific research, combined with the versatility to be able to choose what goes into your body, meet to create a perfect solution,” said Khushang Hirpara, CEO of CLD-9 and student at CU Boulder’s Leeds School of Business.
In second place, Mach Electric Aerospace, LLC plans to turn the aerospace sector from a source of carbon dioxide production to one of carbon dioxide sequestration, with their aerospace-grade carbon fiber created from industrial carbon dioxide waste. Not only will this reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere—helping address climate change—but this carbon fiber material will allow for the creation of lighter aircraft that require less fuel or battery charge to fly.
The company is already in talks with major industry players, such as Lockheed Martin, Airbus, Ford and BMW.
Spencer Dansereau, Mach Electric Aerospace’s founder and vice president of engineering and doctoral student in aerospace engineering, is very excited about their second-place finish. The prize money will further their research on carbon fibers derived directly from carbon dioxide waste gas, he said.
“With this money we will be able to produce optimized, next-generation fibers that will be critical in securing near-term investments, grant funding and continued protection of our IP. It's been an honor to compete in New Venture Challenge. It's a fantastic program that I hope will be just as successful in years to come,” said Dansereau.
Improving communication, fighting climate change
LingDisco opened the evening on a high note: pitching music as an effective learning tool for new languages. Inspired in his youth by the German rock band Rammstein, computer science student Evan Baltman eagerly learned German but was disappointed when he wanted to learn more foreign languages and found it a much more tedious process. So he and a team of CU Boulder students set out to create an entirely new platform that combines music streaming and language learning into one app.
The company has harnessed AI and natural language processing to not only find the best songs in various languages for beginners to learn a language, but these technologies analyze and break down the songs into vocabulary and grammatical components, thus creating fun lessons and tests for users. They plan to release a beta version for user testing in June.
Amidst one of the worst Western droughts in over 1,000 years, Luke Bille and Cameron Klein of ClimateScaping addressed the high demand for xeriscaping: a landscaping style that requires little or no irrigation. The industry is plagued by backlogs and inefficiencies—which their company addresses by using AI, geo-mapping and LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) to model predesigned options in real time for customers interested in replacing their lawns with drought-tolerant native flora.
As the judges expressed not only professional, but personal interest in this product, there’s no doubt that this “yard of the future” will be built first in Boulder.
Students Sydney Kobak, Erika Gossett and Sage Dobby and alumni Aly Nelson and Kelley Levaggi of Piña Designs are building a product and a community to help reduce waste, lower emissions and “make your money count” in the face of climate change. The woman-run company uses the discarded fibers of pineapple leaves and banana plants to create hair ties that are softer on the planet, one’s hair and one’s budget.
“Losing hair ties is inevitable,” they said, but your carbon footprint doesn’t have to be.
- 1st place: CLD-9 ($50,000)
- 2nd place: Mach Electric Aerospace, LLC ($20,000)
- 3rd place: LingDisco ($15,000)
- T-4th place: ClimateScaping ($10,000)
- T-4th place: Piña Designs ($5,000)
- High school audience award: Potty Fairytales LLC ($2,000)
The next generation of entrepreneurs
Wednesday night’s event also launched NVC at the high school level, with three Colorado high school students pitching their products for the chance to win $2,000 from Sweater Ventures.
First place—chosen by the audience—went to Potty Fairytales LLC, an interactive children’s toy and book set developed to help kids receive positive reinforcement and consistency while potty training. Runner-ups included Know Justice Know Peace, a podcast created to elevate student voices and help young people become agents of change, and A-spec technologies, an operating system for electronic devices that helps children with autism spectrum disorder avoid being overstimulated while using them.
NVC will partner with the Conrad Challenge (a youth pitch competition with an online curriculum for teachers) in the 2023–24 academic year to bring entrepreneurial learning to Colorado high schools, culminating in the new High School NVC competition in Boulder. It’s already off to a successful start, with nearly $80,000 raised the night of the NVC finals to provide scholarships for students across the state.
“What an amazing night. We launched the high school NVC, funded five ventures, and again brought together people from the community and the university. And this combined group of university and community members is what makes the Boulder startup ecosystem one of the best in the country,” said Hickory.
For CU Boulder students, faculty and staff, the 2024 New Venture Challenge will begin in fall 2023 with a series of entrepreneurial events and networking opportunities with the Boulder startup community. Registration for the competition will also open in the fall and Buffs interested in competing can learn more and sign up for updates at colorado.edu/nvc.