Challenge Cup 2015 Winners

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The stakes were high for 18 Triangle startups at the 1776 Challenge Cup Durham last Wednesday. The American Underground joined organizers in 50 cities around the world in hosting the preliminary round of the pitch competition aimed at identifying the most promising startups in highly-regulated industries like transportation, education, health, energy and sustainability. 

Only three of the local pitching companies were selected to advance to the regional competition in NYC, where they’ll have a chance to advance to the world competition in DC next May. There, they'll pitch for the chance to win $1 million in prizes along with coveted networking opportunities. 

Last year's global winner was Twiga Fruits of Kenya, a fruit exporter creating a fair and sustainable way for farmers to sell more produce and eliminate middlemen. RTP startup BaseTrace was a semifinalist in the global competition, taking home $50,000 for its DNA-based tracer that identifies leaks and hazards in industrial fluids.
The three startups selected for the 2016 competition were Tom and Jenny’s, Seachange Technology and Neuro+. All 18 pitches were solid, but these three companies’ approach to problem-solving stood out among the rest. 

Tom and Jenny’s

This candy company was founded by a dentist and her husband in their home kitchen. After spending years in research and development and working with a James Beard Award-winning pastry chef, they’ve developed a candy that is all-natural, sugar-free and dentist-approved. As today’s consumers become increasingly health-conscious, Tom and Jenny’s believes it's increasingly well positioned. The couple uses a blend of natural sweeteners proven to reduce cavity-causing bacteria by up to 70 percent, and the candies have up to 35 percent fewer calories than standard sugar candy. 

After delivering his pitch, founder Tommy Thekkekandam sweetened the deal for judges by passing around samples of the candies. Anyone who has tasted the caramels can vouch that they are indeed delicious. In fact, Thekkakandam says they’re preferred over sugar caramels by 60 percent of blind taste-testers. This company has potential to be a game-changer—proving that you can finally have your candy and eat it too.  It's also a repeat contest winner, taking home honors in last spring's Carolina Challenge and the Big Launch Challenge, and the national Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream contest. It's also an NC IDEA finalist this fall. 

Tom & Jenny's is one of three Durham startups to head to New York City to compete in the regional Challenge Cup. Winners there advance to Washington D.C. next May for the final rounds. Credit: Patrick Durham/ExitEvent

SeaChange Technologies

SeaChange Technologies is developing an innovative technology for water purification and desalination, an increasingly critical global environmental issue. The predominant technology for desalination today is reverse osmosis, which removes salt and other impurities by forcing water at high pressures through membrane filters. But this method has serious drawbacks including intensive energy requirements, polluting brine wastewater byproduct and high maintenance costs. 

SeaChange founder Dipak Mahato has developed a desalination system that can handle much higher concentrations of dissolved solids at a much lower operating and maintenance cost. And, it won’t produce liquid discharge, eliminating the need for brine disposal. Mahato recently graduated from Groundwork Labs and is participating in Raleigh's Citrix-Red Hat Accelerator this fall. He's got a patent pending for this technology with the potential to turn salt water into clean drinkable water.

SeaChange Technologies is one of three local Challenge Cup winners. Founder Dipak Mahato will pitch at the regional finals in New York City next March. Credit: Patrick Durham/ExitEvent


Neuro+ makes brain-controlled video games to help kids with ADHD improve their ability to focus and pay attention. Users wear an EEG headset that measures their brain activity and motion, and play a video game that trains them to focus and keep still. Attention disorders in children are becoming increasingly prevalent (10 percent of all children in the U.S. are currently taking stimulant medications for ADHD), and current treatment is limited to stimulant drugs that are expensive and come with a list of adverse side effects. 
Neuro+ helps children to develop and improve vital attention skills through a fun, convenient video game. This technology is fun, and it’s proven to be as effective as leading medications at reducing ADHD symptoms. Founder Jake Stauch thinks Neuro+ has potential to be a sustainable, long-term solution for treating the masses who struggle with attention disorders. Here's a recent ExitEvent profile on the company and technology.
Author’s note: I’ve seen it demoed once, and it’s REALLY awesome.

Jake Stauch of Neuro+ is one of three Durham Challenge Cup winners. He'll compete in New York City next March for the chance to pitch in the global finals in May 2016. Credit: Patrick Durham/ExitEvent
To get an idea of who these founders are up against, here's Challenge Cup coverage from competitions around the globe. We'll update this list as more of the competitions occur.