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. 
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.