March is a month of madness in Chapel Hill. Tournaments and brackets are the talk of the town, bars and restaurants are packed with fans and conjecture of upsets and championships abound. It’s no surprise that the Carolina Challenge, UNC’s premier entrepreneurship pitch competition, would coincide with March Madness. That energy and competitive (but friendly) spirit were on full display last Thursday evening at the Carolina Inn for the Carolina Challenge finals
The Challenge started with 65 teams in February in three different tracks—for-profit, social/not-for-profit, and alumni/faculty/grad/staff. The first two rounds of the Challenge eliminated all but four from each track who had the opportunity to pitch on Thursday evening to decide the winners. The winners from each track received $5,000 and a comically large Happy Gilmore-style check to display.
Like the college basketball tournament traditionally held in March, the Challenge had its share of Cinderella stories, dominant title contenders and upsets.
Here’s the rundown on some of the teams you should know.
The Cinderella Story:
The winner of the for-profit track was Lisa Li and her venture Open Oceans, an online platform to connect small and medium-sized exporters to ocean liners. Think Expedia for exporters.
Li’s victory on Thursday was a bit of a surprise to casual observers. At the Pitch Party, the Challenge’s kick-off event in November, Open Oceans did not even place in the top 10. At the finals on Thursday, it was easy to see how Li rose to the Challenge. She was poised, confident and in command of the facts.
Li, an undergraduate business major who grew up in China, came up with the idea with her copartner Christian Bach in Dr. Ted Zoller’s Global Entrepreneurial Venturing class. Li and Bach are part of Kenan-Flagler’s GLOBE program, a fellowship that allows students from Chapel Hill, Copenhagen and Hong Kong to study at all three locations. Bach is working abroad this semester and was unable to attend Thursday.
Li told the judges that she plans on using their winnings from the Challenge on travel expenses associated with meeting global shipping companies.
To absolutely no one’s surprise, Pitch Party’s third place finisher Buddy’s took home a large check (literally and figuratively) on Thursday night. The waterless-car-detailing-while-you-shop company placed 2nd in the for-profit track after another enthusiastic presentation complete with a dirty (and then clean) car hood.
Austin Helms and the Buddy’s team have been hard at work between the Pitch Party and finals. The team has been performing test runs at farmers markets and Southern Season, raising money for charity and ensuring their system is operationally sound.
Austin started washing cars in high school as a way to make some extra cash. He always knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur and started working on the Buddy’s concept during the fall in Jim Kitchen’s Entrepreneurship and Business Planning course, a class for which I was the teaching assistant. He wasted little time planning and was quick to get out and test the market. I see him frequently at 1789 Venture Lab and he’s always ready to enthusiastically provide an update on his progress. He’s now even more convinced that this business model can be replicated with success. I have no reason to doubt him.
The team plans on using their Challenge winnings to complete their mobile website, allowing them to communicate with customers and make the transaction process seamless.
The Surprise Upset:
After tasting sweet victory at the Pitch Party in November, Rachel Atkinson and her pecan milk company Native Beverage entered the Challenge as early favorites in the social/non-profit track. But Native’s run to the championship was disrupted by two newcomers, SUCCEED and Seal the Seasons, which finished first and second respectively. SUCCEED partners with biotech companies and local public schools to increase educational opportunities in STEM by providing students and teachers with unused science equipment.
Seal the Seasons improves access to healthy foods by flash freezing produce, and then making the items available to underserved communities. If it sounds familiar, that's because the team also took home the grand prize in the SECU Emerging Issues Prizes for Innovation in February.
Atkinson left with her head held high. She impressed the judges and took home a check for $1,000 with a third place finish.
Native Beverage, SUCCEED and Seal the Seasons are all members of The CUBE, UNC’s social innovation incubator.
The alumni and faculty track was won by Tom and Jenny’s, a husband and wife team who have created a delicious sugar-free candy that is actually good for your teeth. While their pitch was fantastic, I’m sure it didn’t hurt that they handed out free candy to the judges. They also do not lack in the credibility department. Sindhura "Jenny" Citineni is a practicing dentist and Tommy Thekkekandam is an MBA who worked as a consultant with McKinsey before quitting to work on the venture full-time. Tom and Jenny’s is a part of Launch Chapel Hill, an accelerator program created by Chapel Hill, Orange County and UNC.
After the prizes were handed out and final speeches made, attendees rushed home and to Franklin Street bars to watch the Tar Heels take on the Wisconsin Badgers in a Sweet 16 matchup. Despite the Heels’ valiant effort, they lost a close game, leaving fans disappointed but very much looking forward to next season. As with basketball, for the young entrepreneurs who fell a bit short in the Carolina Challenge, there’s always next year.