Last Thursday night, Jeff Smith and John Pamplin stood on a stage in front of 300 people and hoisted an oversized check for $1,000, smiling for the cameras. It had been a long night of handshaking, networking, and selling themselves and their medical device startup, Compression Kinetics. The check they held was fake but the prize money they won for placing 2nd in the Carolina Challenge Pitch Party was very real—valuable resources for a startup trying to remain as lean as possible.
Pitch Party is the kick off event for the University of North Carolina’s four-month-long entrepreneurship competition, the Carolina Challenge.
This year’s venue was Kenan Stadium’s Blue Zone, a premium seating area located behind the east end zone. While the Tar Heel football team was taking on arch-rival Duke in Durham, the stadium hosted Smith, Pamplin and hundreds of other startup contestants, judges and observers.
The room buzzed with excitement as contestants eagerly vied for the attention of judges. The judges rotated around the room and listened to two-minute pitches from teams at their stations, or at least that was supposed to be the format. Desperation to talk to as many judges as possible caused many teams to go rogue, sending members toward the center of the room to lure judges to their tables.
Judges were given five bills with which to cast their votes. After listening to dozens of the 100 teams pitch, they had to decide which five they’d recommend to move on to the top 10 and win cash prizes. After nearly two hours of organized chaos, the votes were tallied and the top 10 teams were announced.
Each team was called to the stage to give the same two-minute pitch they had been giving all night—this time in front of the entire audience. After these final pitches, judges were asked to vote again.
As the final results were about to be announced, the football game in Durham was just beginning. When the TVs in the Blue Zone were turned on, Carolina was already up 14-0 over the Blue Devils, sending another charge of energy through the partisan Tar Heel crowd.
After final votes were tallied, Rachel Atkinson (pictured top of page) and her Native Beverage Company took home the top prize, just in front of Compression Kinetics (pictured here), which is developing inflatable sleeves to reduce swelling after injury, and third-place finisher Buddy’s, a “revolutionary” wash-while-you shop car detailing service.
Native Beverage sources pecans from eastern North Carolina and makes pecan milk products as an alternative to dairy, soy and almond products. This inevitably sparked debate about the correct pronunciation of the word “pecan,” with many claiming pee-CAN was right while others swore by pick-AHN (the correct pronunciation is objectively pick-AHN by the way). There was no debating the deliciousness of pecan milk, however. Native Beverage still has some work to do before making the product widely available.
Pamplin and Smith began their mission of making a smarter compression sleeve in fall 2013 as students at UNC. Pamplin has since graduated but Compression Kinetics is going strong in Memphis, where the team recently completed a medical device accelerator program. The founders are raising money now.
The prize for most entertaining presentation of the night (a prize I made up) went to Buddy’s cofounder Austin Helms.
Helms wore his bright yellow Buddy’s uniform shirt on stage and enthusiastically proclaimed his intention to “revolutionize” the car detailing industry. His clear passion for cleaning bugs out off of windshields must have garnered support. Buddy’s placed third and took home a check for $1,000.
Pitch Party was a fun start to the Carolina Challenge, which picks back up in February with the opening round and ends in March. During the regular competition, the pitches are longer and more formal. The stakes are higher, with tens of thousands of dollars up for grabs. For now, the competitors can celebrate Thanksgiving and prepare for final exams.
Before the bell tower clock struck midnight, over $5,000 in prize money had been awarded to 10 UNC startups and the Tar Heel football team defeated Duke 45-20. There was certainly plenty of cause for celebration in Chapel Hill. We just hope the attendance policy was lax for those Friday morning classes.