DAVIDSON – The fifth annual Davidson College Venture Fund Pitch Day showcased the fact that there is also an abundance of student ingenuity when it comes to technological innovation at the liberal arts institution nestled along Lake Norman just north of Charlotte.

Davidson Venture Fund

One team is bringing digital banking to East Africa; the other is adding new capabilities for drones.

“There were two clear winners in the group,” said Jay Hurt, former president and CEO of The Hurt Company, Inc., and a member of the Davidson College class of 1988, who also served as one of three judges at the event. The judges opted to split the prize between two of the five companies, said Hurt, noting that each winner was primed for a quick expansion in their target market, creating more opportunity for the Davidson Venture Fund to invest in a company that would become a success story.

Here’s a look at each of the winners:

NALA, bringing digital banking to East Africa

Sam Castle, CTO of NALA, is at the end of a very busy week. The company is a for-profit social enterprise that is working to build a digital bank that provides affordable, accessible, and convenient financial services for East Africa. The young company had just launched their Android application and Castle made his five-minute pitch at the event.

Castle, a member of the Davidson College class of 2014, graduated with a degree in mathematics, but took full advantage of the liberal arts program, studying the German language, taking multiple courses in Latin American studies, and learning about Asian Meditation through texts including the works of Thich Nhat Hanh. He also interned at NASA and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and took as many computer science and physics courses as possible.

Sam Castle poses with the judges after sharing the first place prize.

After graduating, Castle worked in Chile and later joined the University of Washington College of Engineering as a Ph.D. candidate in computer science. Castle has already earned a masters degree in computer science from the institution.

When he met Benjamin Fernandes, a Tanzanian and graduate of the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, they found they shared a mutual interest in leveraging technology to improve the lives of those in under-resourced communities. In Fernandes’ native country, only 15 percent of Tanzanian families have a traditional banking account. This can make sending payments extremely difficult.

In Tanzania, said Castle, the process of making a payment to a utility company or sending funds to a family member is extremely cumbersome. For those that do not have a bank account, they rely on a system of mobile payments. And mobile phone adoption is quite high—three of every four of adults has a mobile phone. Telecommunications companies have found a lucrative business in facilitating mobile payments through their networks, at an extreme cost to users, said Castle, as only an average of 73 percent of the payment is actually received as usable funds. The rest is absorbed as fees for the service. It’s like sending your friend $10 for your share of a pizza dinner and your friend only getting $7.30.

NALA, the mobile payment application built by Castle and Fernandes, solves three challenges and improves the user experience. Their mobile payment system charges a 4–12% service fee, aligning to industry standards, and is seven times more efficient than current models. It’s also designed for ease of use by low-literacy users, requiring just three clicks to send a payment. And, unlike the current model, NALA is constructed to allow a secure mechanism to transfer money to and from multiple accounts, across different platforms. Furthermore, it operates solely on the wireless network, so no data plan is needed to process payments.

“We believe this will empower people in East Africa to take financial responsibility and improve the lives of families in the region,” said Castle.

They began to develop the concept in August of 2017, and tested their product with 200 users in March. They opened a limited launch in Tanzania on April 19, and have already exceeded the available slots and developed a waiting list that is more than 50,000 people long.

The three judges awarded NALA half of the $25,000 prize money available through the annual pitch event, made available from the Davidson Venture Fund. The company also recently won a $20,000 grant from Stanford University and a $50,000 grant from the DFS Lab that has allowed them to develop and deliver their product to the market.

The other half of the prize money was awarded to Lucid, LLC. The founding team is comprised of Andrew Ashur, David Danielson, and Adrian Mayans, all members of the class of 2019.

Lucid, a new dimension for drones

Lucid provides drone-powered pressure washing technology services to safely, efficiently, and cost-effectively clean industrial buildings, schools, and skyscrapers. It’s an industry that is surprisingly large—more than $9 billion was spent in 2017 to power wash or clean the outside surfaces of buildings between 50,000 and 1 million square feet, said Ashur [pictured at the beginning of this post] in the company’s five-minute pitch.

Andrew Ashur demos the Lucid drone technology.

Lucid has developed a customized drone equipped with the necessary equipment to service buildings up to 104 feet in height, though maximum height they’ve currently tested their system is 73 feet—nine stories high. There are 350,000 buildings in the United States that are serviceable by their model—owned or managed by roughly 116,000 companies. No existing company has captured more than five percent of the market.

The industry is ripe for disruption, explained Ashur, and the market opportunity is immense. He noted that pressure washing and cleaning a two-story building recently cost an organization $25,000 to complete, and most of that cost was tied up in the rental of two pieces of large construction equipment that had to be moved and repositioned frequently.

For every five minutes that their power-washing drone runs, the company generates $250 in revenue and completes 2,000 square feet of surface cleaning.

The company has completed one drone with the required rigging and technology, said Ashur, though the drone is a modified standard model available for commercial sale. To really capitalize on the market opportunity, the company plans to invest in a custom-built commercial drone to carry a rigging payload of up to 110 pounds, enough to successfully deploy their technology to a height of 400 feet, which is allowed by current FAA regulations.

While the company will deploy the $12,500 investment toward the completion of their custom-built drone, they anticipate the total cost between $22,500 an $30,000.

Ashur plans to work on the company full-time after completing courses this spring that qualify him to graduate early.

The other contenders

Three other companies pitched at the event:

  • Blueming, from founder Sara Shah, Davidson College class of 2017, is a revolutionary mobile self-care application designed to help the birthing and supporting partners that are at risk of developing postpartum depression (PPD) and anxiety after the birth of a child. As 25 percent of mothers and 10 percent of fathers develop PPD, Blueming will provide new parents with educational audio trainings, guided meditation, support, and referrals to clinical assistance.

  • Scriba Planner, from founder Maya Packer, Davidson College class of 2017, is a customizable organizational tool for students and professionals to help them keep their lives in order and on track for their most important projects.

  • The American Moderate, from Kenny Xu, class of 2019, is a concept to build a platform to produce and stream high-quality video debates on political and social issues for entertainment and education.

Last year’s winner, Bloomerent, which received a $50,000 investment, closed an additional round of funding in September 2017, launching in additional markets. According to co-founder Julia Capalino, class of 2011, the company recently launched a second product, Bundles, by Bloomerent.

“Bundles aims to make booking wedding flowers easier for couples,” said Capalino, “This new offering will allow couples to purchase wedding flowers from florists in bundles, based off of their budget and needs.”