DURHAM – One startup just launched its own virtual reality social network, hoping to rival the likes of Facebook one day.

Another was helping others set up custom loans with family and friends in a few simple steps; and yet another had created a marketplace for humanitarian aid.

This was the lineup at Big Top’s Startup Crawl on Monday night, this month hosted by American Underground (AU). (Check out our latest Photo shoot feature highlighting Monday’s event.)

Around 100 people packed onto its rooftop terrace, kicking off a big week at the tech hub, which is also set to host a slew of events later this week – including Black Wall Street Homecoming and Google for Entrepreneurs Exchange: Black Founders (GFE).

Here’s a look at the night’s featured companies:


The next billion-user (virtual) social network?

 Pick your own avatar, make friends, chat, decorate rooms, play games, set up a newsfeed.

WRAL TechWire photo

Jimmy Xu and Josh Johnson discuss their new venture at the Startup Crawl.

That’s #Me, a virtual social network on mobile that is kind of like Instagram, Facebook Messenger, Xbox and a deep virtual world “all rolled into one”.

Launched last month, it’s the latest product from Highrise, a consumer mobile company.

“Our vision is that the next billion-user social network will be a virtual world, and will not be constrained to a person’s real identity,” founder Jimmy Xu, 32, told WRAL TechWire, who formerly worked for Apple and is now based in Durham.

It all began five years ago when he and cofounder, Anton Bernstein, based in California, realized there was an untapped market for gaming and social networks. Initially, they bootstrapped the company and released Highrise, a game with social features.

The result: 3 million plus users with $2 million in yearly revenue.

But while iterating on Highrise, they understood that there was “something big” at the core of the experience, and opted to double down on that by creating #ME, a social network around virtual identities and real-time experiences.

“People are getting tired of real identity and being anchored to that, especially Gen Z,” explained Xu. “They feel there is more to the internet than just being who you are, and having your picture on a Facebook profile.”

This summer, they launched out of Y Combinator, one of the country’s top seed accelerators, and raised $3 million from Bessemer, Sweet Capital (creators of Candy Crush), Boxgroup, Maveron, RRE, GFR, Canaan, among others.

Now anything is possible. “We’re setting out with an extremely ambitious vision, and we believe we have the chops to execute it,” he says.


Helping people get low-interest loans

Bernard Worthy, 30, knows firsthand how hard it is to get a loan with favorable terms.

WRAL TechWire photo

Bernard Worthy of LoanWell

A few years back, when he was looking into coding boot camp, he was forced to take out a high-interest rate loan to attend the program.

“I was talking to some of my peers there, and a lot of them had to piecemeal their financing as well,” he recalled.

That’s how he and cofounder Justin Straight hatched the idea for LoanWell, a fundraising platform that helps people get low-interest loans from supporters, bypassing bank financing or credit cards all together.

“Our hypothesis is that people are doing this informal arrangement, back-of-the-napkin, handshake agreement, and you never really set the terms and expectations. What we’re trying to do is take this informal agreement and make it a more formal scenario, and by virtue of making it more formal, makes people step up a little bit.”

It’s not the first of its kind, Worthy admitted, but it’s more “modern and user-friendly” with updated features like auto-draft payments and public campaigns.

“That helps us stand apart from the competition,” adding that he estimates the market for friends and family lending accounts for up to $80 billion a year in the United States alone. “It’s a massive market and a lot of opportunity there. We hope to be a market leader.”

To date, the company has raised around $280,000 – mostly from an NC IDEA grant and a convertible note. It is based out of AU, has three employees, and is currently hiring a content creator.

“It’s been a great ride so far,” said Worthy, who graduated from GFE Black Founders graduate last year. “We are generating revenue each week, constantly refining the product and the user experience, and most importantly helping create some great stories of people accessing cheaper capital,” he said.


A marketplace for humanitarian aid

It’s been a momentous month for Amanda Levinson, 42, who co-founded NeedsList, a real-time needs registry for displaced people and global disasters.

WRAL TechWire photo

Amanda Levinson of NeedsList

She relocated the company’s headquarters from Philadelphia to Durham in August. Then Hurricane Florence hit, forcing her and her team into high gear with the relief effort.

“It was extreme user testing,” she said.

Two years running, the tech startup works like a “wedding registry for humanitarian aid” and currently has 100 organizations in 12 countries using its platform. To date, it estimates that more than 40,000 needs have been met – and counting.

Also based out of American Underground, she’s been impressed by the startup scene here in the Bull City.

“It seems really supportive and everybody seems friendly and curious,” Levinson said, attending her first Startup Crawl. “I’ve already met so many interesting people in the hour I’ve been here.”