CHARLOTTE – Thirteen of Charlotte’s best early-stage startups were on stage at the 17th annual Charlotte Venture Challenge on Tuesday pitching in three categories, each with a cash prize at stake.

From an employment platform to software, nanotechnology to a mobile app for tracking of alcohol abuse, the entrepreneurs put on a show.

Hosted by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte Center City Campus in the heart of uptown Charlotte, the event attracted more than 100 investors, community members, researchers, and employees of entrepreneurial support organizations and startups.

Lindsey Hasaer Braciale

Attendees voted Notable as the winner of the “People’s Choice” Award, recognizing founder Lindsey Haaser Braciale at the closing reception.

“One hundred people apply for the job. Five get an interview. What happens to the other 95 candidates?” asked Braciale. “Nothing. Until now.”

Braciale developed a platform [see graphic at top of this post] that helps candidates that did not get an interview get feedback in a way that actually meets their needs—and helps them improve their applications for future roles.

The algorithm that undergirds the application leverages data analytics to provide valuable insight on both sides of the hiring equation. Candidates learn how to improve their application materials to better reflect their skills to align with the job and the company, and companies benefit by using their existing hiring infrastructure to identify potentially qualified candidates from prior applicant pools using objective data.

Prior to launching Notable, Braciale grew her first company, Advocations, which helps place job candidates with disabilities into roles where they’ll excel. She’s hired and placed more than 4,300 people, and believes that Notable can be a scalable platform that can increase that number exponentially.

“We want companies to stop expending resources trying to find and hire top talent, and instead find talent that is worth the investment,” said Braciale. The problem with top talent, said Braciale, is that they’re more apt to use the job or the role as a stepping stone to another company. After two or three years, they may leave the company.

“Not only do our people stay,” said Braciale, “They come every day, very eager and very excited.” One of her clients is AvidXchange, Charlotte’s newest unicorn. They’d experienced a significant amount of turnover in one specific role. Braciale met with their team and realized that the job description was a perfect match for job candidates with autism. Using her platform, she’s helped AvidXchange reduce turnover and increase efficiency.

Braciale is aiming to scale the platform. The company plans to raise an introductory seed round to fuel growth and operations, scaling their approach to help thousands more people, said Braciale. “We will be able to close the gap of economic opportunity,” she said.

Junior Wins Student Pitch Contest

Genubot won the J. Chris Murphy Award and a cash prize of $1,000 in the UNC-Charlotte student category. Founder Treven Stoddard, a junior at UNC-Charlotte, developed the concept for the company when he realized that the teaching assistant assigned to instruct his section of calculus suffered from social anxiety and was unable to provide the instruction that students needed in order to gain confidence in their ability to learn and develop the foundational mathematical skills to complete basic and complex calculus equations.

A snapshot of Genubot data

“Not enough students are graduating from our colleges to fill the STEM jobs available in the market now,” said Stoddard, whose research showed that one in three declared mathematics majors drop out of their programs or switch their major during their first three years in a college or university program.

Because a lot of students struggle with calculus, they turn to external resources, said Stoddard. The solutions that are currently available don’t necessarily help students learn the underlying fundamentals. And that’s how Genubot will deliver value to their customers.

The proprietary machine learning algorithm determines which problems students get correct and incorrect within a problem set, and returns a customized report that provides step-by-step explanations about how to solve the equation.

Treven Stoddard

Stoddard participated in the Ventureprise program at UNC-Charlotte. The program helps would-be founders refine and test their ideas through conducting market research and customer validation interviews.

The two other finalists, Tijarah and Guap LLC, also reached this event by winning the UNC-Charlotte 49er iChallenge and participating in the Ventureprise program and each received $500 for qualifying as finalists and finishing tied as the runner-up.

Christopher “CJ” Pereira was waiting in line at a Starbucks one day, wondering what it would take to get someone to wait in line for him. After reflecting on this concept, he wondered if he might be able to build an application where you could put any job out on the platform for a competitive bid from a labor pool to pick it up. From waiting in line to startup founder, Pereira co-founded Guap LLC with childhood friend Daniel Peccerilli, and joined Ventureprise to complete an extensive customer validation process.

“We have a big labor force here in Charlotte,” said Peccerilli, “and we wanted to make sure that college students have an opportunity on a schedule that fits their needs.”

Rather than launch a platform that tried to match services to labor, the founders quickly determined they would focus on a niche market. Their research showed an opportunity to disrupt existing moving and hauling companies by applying technology to make staffing and logistics more affordable and efficient. Paired with effective contract labor, Gaup LLC launched, paying contractors a rate of $13.50 per hour. They’ll make money in the margin, as they charge clients $20 per hour for moving and $25 per hour for hauling, plus additional fees based on mileage, final location, and booking.

For Mohammad Aboufoul and Mohammad Salad, the event was more than an opportunity to pitch their shopping app, Tijarah, that aggregates retailers, preventing users from needing to download multiple shopping applications.

“We’re pitching a high-level overview of our company,” said Salad. Their mobile application could help enhance the retail shopping experience at grocery stores and brick-and-mortar businesses by reducing queue times waiting in line and providing shoppers a running total of the price and value of the items in their physical shopping cart.

Each company presented a viable business, said Greg Brown, fund administrator for the Charlotte Angel Fund, and one of the judges at the event. Genubot was selected as the winner based on the evaluation criteria considered by the judges, which factored in business model, milestones, and the delivery of the pitch.

The two other judges were Lori Collins, founder of Collins Climate Consulting and a member of the Charlotte Angel Fund, and Khalia Braswell, founder and CEO of the INTech Foundation and the INTech Camp for Girls, one of the twenty companies that were selected for the seventh cohort of SEED20 companies earlier this year. Braswell is an alumni of UNC-Charlotte and a former UX designer for Apple.

University Research and Innovation

“In our past competitions, we’ve had as many as 40 companies presenting,” said Devin Collins, assistant director of entrepreneurship and business development at UNC-Charlotte. “Today, we’ve done it a bit differently.”

Of the 65 teams that have participated in the Ventureprise programs through UNC-Charlotte, with 40 faculty members and 93 students involved, just five founders presented on the panel describing their experiences in commercializing their academic research.

The Ventureprise participants

The companies were:

  • NanEX, which has developed a functionalized nanomaterial that removes contaminants from the drinking water supply faster and safer than existing treatments;

  • Vector Analytics, which provides predictive analytics to benchmark innovation and research and development, discover emerging trends, and highlight insight on product development processes;

  • Tell-i Technologies, a high-frequency electronic power system;

  • SmarTrek, a mobile app to prevent alcohol abuse among college students based on motivational intervention;

  • ResArt, a system that uses new technology to recommend visual objects.

“The program taught me how to have a customer conversation to discover what they wanted, not what I thought they needed,” said Marcia Price, founder of Vector Analytics. “We worked through each workshop in the program and learned how to have better conversations, and used the insight we gained to develop our value proposition.”

Shahriar Nabir, a graduate student developing the technology behind the Tell-i Technologies high-frequency electronic power system noted that the Ventureprise program was quite rigorous, but worthwhile.

“It was a very good learning experience for me as a person,” said Nabir.

Judges awarded each company a $2,000 cash prize.

Community Engagement

In addition to the student pitch contest and the finalist panel from university researchers, the Charlotte Venture Challenge invited five finalists to discuss experiences in the Ventureprise program delivered in conjunction with NC IDEA Foundation, which focuses on development of the state’s startup ecosystem.

“We are hoping to build capacity statewide,” said Thom Ruhe, who also delivered a keynote address. “We have a lot of opportunity if we can find the resources to support them in North Carolina.”

The partnership between Ventureprise and NC IDEA provides early-stage startups a training curriculum based on market validation and customer discovery. Five companies that completed this program participated in the Community Engagement Panel at the event:

  • Career Unlocked, Inc, a certified veteran-owned business focused on making tools that connect companies with talent;

  • Med Portal, LLC, which promotes engagement within the medical community through a unique platform;

  • 27 Software, which offers a platform for developers to build applications and manage software development projects;

  • Notable, which provides technology to help companies look beyond “fit” to find diverse candidates that will continue to add value for the long-term;

  • FixMob, Inc, a mobile app that allows customers, tenants, and employees to report maintenance issues to facility teams.

“I spoke to more than 70 customers and found out that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did,” said Andrew Lee, founder of Career Unlocked. After conducting interviews, Lee has begun to develop a video pre-screening technology, First Look, that allows hiring managers to sort and select candidates.

Judges awarded each company a $2,000 cash prize.