In 20 minutes, six companies proved their worth to a panel of judges and a collection of investors Thursday at this year’s Texas A&M New Ventures Competition.
Ultimately, Alex Wesley’s Arovia took the top prize of $50,000 for the Spontaneous Pop-Up Display or SPUD, the desktop-size collapsible display that uses umbrella technology for portability.
With the opportunity to win thousands of dollars in investments, meet new resources and get feedback from the judges, Wesley said, the competitions are very important to startup businesses like his.
“These types of competitions are really, really important for early stage companies… If you’re not getting grant funding, it’s really hard, and in the early stages $50,000 can really affect your business,” judge and 2017 winner Jessica Traver said. “A lot of companies rely on this stuff. We did. It was a huge influx of money for us.”
“We’re startups. Money is air; money’s oxygen, so the chance to win $5,000 or $50,000 at these competitions to support startups, that’s important to us,” Advanced Scanners’ Jeff Levine said.
Traver won last year’s competition for her company IntuiTap Medical, which helps physicians more accurately and efficiently perform spinal punctures.
Money from the competition helped Traver perform a cadaver study and has gotten the company on path to submitting their product to the Food and Drug Administration for approval.
It was fun being a judge, though, she said, bringing a different perspective than the other investors in the deliberation room.
“Investors always care about one thing, but sometimes somebody that’s been through this can understand what else might be important and what else to focus on, so being able to speak up for companies, [being] an advocate for them in the room I think is really cool,” she said.
Her involvement helped Traver learn what investors look for and what to spot in other people’s companies and pitches.
“It was funny to be on the other side. You get it. You’ve been through it. You know what people ask… You’re actually pretty poised to be a good judge after having been through this,” she said.
Unlike some other competitions, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) event is for real companies based on their investability, rather than being a business plan competition, New Ventures Competition Chair Chris Scotti said.
“This is the real world. This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak,” said Bala Haridas, TEES’ executive director for Technology Commercialization and Entrepreneurship. “These companies have to be able to answer these questions in order to prove that they’re worth investing in.”
The opportunity comes at a fragile time in the businesses’ plans, Scotti said.
“Most of these companies are in a little bit of a valley of death between when they get early funding from founders and family, and when they get big rounds of money from venture capital funds and angel investors,” he said.
The competition benefits the university, the companies and the community, he continued.
At the university level, it fulfills a statewide mandate to support science- and engineering-based technologies. It gives the entrepreneurs a platform to present their ideas. Then, it presents Bryan-College Station as a viable location for their company.
Entrepreneurs benefit from the feedback the judges give, Levine said, because it allows them to better present their company and know what needs to be explained better next time.
“We get so into what we’re doing that it’s nice to have other people that are hearing this for the first time give their perspective and hold your feet to the fire, keep you honest,” he said.
It is during competitions, he said, that sometimes allows companies to make connections with potential investors, even if the funding is not available at that time.
“Almost everything we’re doing is to satisfy those needs because if you don’t, you’re never going to get that big company to convert your company,” Levine said, adding knowledge can be as important as funding to a startup company.
Haridas said this year’s final pitches were unique in that they all address “grand challenges” that are being discussed on a global scale, including medical costs and procedures, clean water and energy.
“They were absolutely exciting. It’s great to see young entrepreneurs taking on these grand challenges,” he said.
Over the past four years of the New Ventures competition, companies have received more than $1 million, given to finalists and semifinalists whose work was recognized following a one-minute elevator pitch competition
“Going forward, what we want to do is continue to be that unique example in the Texas ecosystem that is technology neutral,” Haridas said. “You want to have every company that is developing really challenging technologies to not only win here, but then succeed after they leave this competition… It’s all about impact.”
After doing a survey of competition alumni, Haridas said, TEES found they had gone on to raise nearly $30 million and that 96 percent of the companies were still operating.
“The impact has been tremendous, even in such a short period of time. What I expect to see is over the next 10 years, I’d like to see our companies raise over a billion dollars in capital and by then hopefully some of these companies have become billion-dollar companies as well,” he said.