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Deal Flow

Brown Venture Prize Pitch Night draws an overflow crowd

Top three teams of Brown-based entrepreneurs awarded a total of $50,000, with a focus on scaling up their startup firms to tackle some huge social problems

Image courtesy of Jonathan M. Nelson for Entrepreneurship website

The entrepreneurial team for Formally won the first prize of $25,000 at the Brown Venture Prize Pitch Night on March 6.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/11/19
A large crowd of nearly 500 people gathered to hear the competition by entrepreneurial teams making pitches for the Brown Venture Prize, with awards totaling $50,000.
Why is there an absence of comprehensive, detailed reporting on the innovation ecosystem and innovation economy activities in Rhode Island? What are the shortfalls of news outlets reprinting new releases as news? Is there a consumer market for Teff cereal products or Teff beer in Rhode Island? Will Formally find a way to connect with The Genesis Center in Rhode Island as a way to test its immigration application form process? Will goTeff reach out to Edesia as well as the African Alliance of Rhode Island to help the company test market some of their products? How will changes in the leadership at FDA as well as new revelations of hidden files about problems with medical devices such as staplers used in surgeries affect efforts to develop new medical devices?
As more and more entrepreneurial programs flourish and multiply in Rhode Island, in parallel, there also appears to be a widening gap in the knowledge base about what is actually occurring within the Rhode Island innovation ecosystem. Why is that?
One reason, perhaps, is the politics of selling news coverage, in what is known as native advertising: there is a premium to reap in promoting programs and projects, rather than asking discerning questions and reporting the answers.
Another reason, perhaps, is the way that too many conversations still occur in narrow silos, without a willingness to be more inclusive or find common ground.
A third reason, perhaps, is a lack of engagement at a personal level; our lives are more than our work, and our work is more than our jobs.
At the Brown Venture Prize pitch night, for instance, the best conversation I had was with a Brown graduate engineering student, talking about the legacy of novelist Chinua Achebe, and whether his works, such as “Things Fall Apart,” were still being read, as well as the influence of guitarist King Sunny Ade.

PROVIDENCE – It was, as former Vice President Joe Biden once said, a big effing deal. Or, to borrow a phrase from President Donald Trump, it was bigly.

Nearly 500 folks crowded into the social hall on the first floor at the Hillel Center at Brown University on Wednesday evening, March 6, for the annual Brown Venture Prize Pitch Night, under the slogan, “Empowering the Next Big Idea,” sponsored by the Jonathan M. Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship.

For the past few years, Hillel has been serving as the temporary oasis for the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, which is scheduled to move in the next few weeks into its gleaming new home on Thayer Street, across from the Brown Bookstore and next to Shake Shack. [Indeed, as one attendee noted, it may have been one of the biggest crowds at Hillel since the High Holy Days.]

“Like I always say, our methodology is teaching a structured process for [solving] problems,” said Danny Warshay, the executive director of the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, in an interview after the event, saying it was the biggest ever Venture Pitch Night. “The tagline we always use for what we do is: Solutions with impact. I think all the teams [that competed tonight] are good examples of that.”

The pitch night featured eight finalists – teams of young entrepreneurs affiliated with Brown, competing for $50,000 in prizes to jumpstart their startup business platforms, winnowed from 27 initial competitors.

Each team of entrepreneurs gave a five-minute presentation, evaluated by seven judges, including: Rufus Griscom ’91, CEO and co-founder, The Next Big Idea Club; Liz Hamburg ’86, founder, Upstart Venture; Rajiv Kumar ’05 MD ’09, president and chief medical officer, Virgin Pulse; Luke Sherwin ’12, co-founder of Casper; Laura Thompson ’09, advisor, Project Wayfinder; Adam Vitarello ’05, president and co-founder of Optoro; and Jayna Zweiman ’01, activist, artist, and co-founder, Pussy Hat Project.

The standing-room-only event was livestreamed around the world, including to Ethiopia and South Africa.

And, as so often happens with events that occur at the hub of collision in the Rhode Island innovation ecosystem, the only reporter on the scene covering the venture pitch night session was ConvergenceRI.

And the winners are…
The winner of the $25,000 first-place prize was Formally, which has created a platform to make applications in the immigration world for asylum, immigration and citizenship easier to fill out, having created an intuitive form filler process to empower both applicants and attorneys.

The winner of the $15,000 second-place prize was goTeff, which seeks to build a mission-driven nutrition brand using Teff grain, a super-food from Ethiopia, which can provide a superior nutrition product for U.S. consumers while empowering small farmers in Ethiopia.

The winner of the $10,000 third-place prize was EmboNet, which has developed a double-layered, pocketed mesh device to securely capture and remove embolic debris from blood during cardiac bypass surgeries, reducing the risk of stroke and cerebral injury.

The other teams competing for the venture prize included: Zap Charging, which seeks to provide on-demand charging for electric vehicles, anytime and anywhere; H2OK Innovations, which seeks to use AI and data analytics to empower communities with cost-saving information that drive decisions to ensure sustainable access to drinking water; Intus Care, which seeks to provide on-demand, in-home care coordination and enrichment for the elderly and disabled through an interactive network; Selected, which seeks to create an AI-power digital platform to connect international students with U.S. educational consultants, streamlining personalized application assistance, with a focus on the Chinese market; and Cress Health, which seeks to leverage mobile technology to fight addiction and promote access to recovery.

The takeaway, take one
Amelie-Sophie Vavrovsky, a member of the winning Formally team, along with Benjamin Murphy, Diane Mutako and Noah Picard, told ConvergenceRI after winning first-place and $25,000 that one of the reasons why Formally’s pitch was so compelling was the startup had developed a solution to a problem that was an incredibly timely issue. “This issue resonates with people,” she said. “There are a lot of human rights abuses happening at the U.S. border, putting asylum seekers in the spotlight. Creating a solution [to asylum application forms] is way overdue. And it resonated with people.”

Vavrovsky and her team of entrepreneurs described the process as competitive but also supportive. “We know almost all the other teams,” Vavrovsky said. “We’ve given each other feedback. And advice. It has been an incredibly supportive community.

The takeaway, take two
Warshay, who directs the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, was basking in the afterglow of the successful event when he talked with ConvergenceRI.

Warshay described how Thorne Sparkman, managing director of the Slater Technology Fund, had congratulated him after the event. “It was gratifying to have Thorne come up to me and give me a high-five and tell me, ‘This is amazing.’ I am really proud of what we’re doing here on behalf of Brown and its community and also on behalf of the broader Rhode Island community.”

Part of the emphasis of the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, Warshay continued, is to grow the local Rhode Island startup community. “We are explicitly doing our best to plant seeds that will germinate in Rhode Island.”

All three winners, Warshay said, have developed local roots. Formally is already locally based; goTEFF has some operations that are locally based; and EmboNet has established ongoing connections to the local university and hospital communities.

Warshay also said the Nelson Entrepreneurship Center has a partnership with the Slater Technology Fund, as a complement to the Brown Venture Prize, called the Brown Venture Funders Program, which awards $50,000 to a Brown team to motivate them to stay here in Rhode Island and grow their startup here.

The takeaway, take three
There continues to be a lot of activity in the entrepreneurial zone occurring below the surface. Sitting in front of ConvergenceRI at the Venture Prize Pitch Night was Hope Hopkins, the new program director at MassChallenge Rhode Island, who recently left her position at CommerceRI to take on the challenge [pun intended] of encouraging and mentoring new startup firms.

Sitting next to ConvergenceRI at the event was a Brown graduate engineering student, Philip Alabi, who is working on his own entrepreneurial endeavor to send used classroom texts to Nigeria for use by students there.

Alabi is also collaborating with Adam Alpert on a project known as Pangea, an effort to “enable Rhode Island entrepreneurs to meet each other and bring those interested in the ecosystem into the fold.” The goal of the effort is to increase the number of startups that succeed in Rhode Island by helping inspire more people to start, connecting them with mentors, and connecting them with resources.

Together with the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, NEMIC, and RI Bio and RIBiohub, there are a lot of ongoing conversations and mentoring opportunities for new venture startups. What still remains unclear is where the investment money to support such activities to move from early stage to commercial stage will be found.

The takeaway, take four

The top two winners at the Brown Venture Prize Pitch Night were teams of entrepreneurs who were seeking to scale up platforms to solve problems related to social issues: a way to help asylum seekers and lawyers decipher complex immigration forms, creating an easy-to-use technology solution; and a way to support local farmers in Ethiopia by promoting a consumer brand and products featuring teff, a nutritious grain.

More than just scaling up to make money, the entrepreneur teams that won the challenge to empower the next big idea were focused on creating a social good, not just a pipeline to a successful IPO.

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