Last September, UNC-Chapel Hill seniors Lauren Gil and Mansi Vakil sat with three other classmates in an entrepreneurship course, trying to generate startup ideas.
April 8, 2016
UNC Carolina Challenge Winners’ App Connects Students With Startup Projects
A team of UNC seniors wins the annual startup pitch competition at UNC-Chapel Hill, plus intros to the seven runners-up.
Naturally, the conversation began to devolve into discussing the “real world.” Namely, the group discussed the uncertainty surrounding their job prospects, and the difficulty they faced in finding valuable work experience that fit into their heavy course load. It’s a conversation that happens in university settings across the world: Seniors, a month into their final school year, begin to stress about graduation and job prospects.
“All of us realized we had the same problem,” Gil says, noting that their original group discussion included two Danish students and one from Hong Kong. “We just saw this was a global problem across all cultures, and thought it would be a great idea to [pursue].”
Fast forward through a few months of market research and user testing, and that conversation had turned into a business idea with some legs.
Unisource, the result of that September conversation, is an online platform connecting college students with project-based work opportunities inside of early stage startups. On Thursday night, the fledgling startup earned first place honors at the Carolina Challenge—UNC’s annual year-long startup competition—and took home $10,000 in prize money.
“We’re in the development stage,” Gil says, explaining that Unisource will use the prize money to continue building out their app. Before rolling the app out fully, however, Gil and Vakil will ensure that customers are being matched properly.
“We’ll be manually matching students and startups for our beta launch, and then we’ll let the app do the work with our public launch and just facilitate the process.”
The competition began with about 60 applicants, narrowed down to 25 semifinalists who gave a short pitch to a judges’ panel in mid-March. From that semifinal round, eight finalists emerged to pitch on Thursday night, each taking home prize money that can be invested directly into their early-stage ventures.
Rounding out the top three were Talk With Sam—a mobile app that helps Asian students develop their English skills by speaking with an on-demand native speaker — and LineLeader— a mobile “fast pass” app that allows customers to pay to skip lines at restaurants, bars, nightclubs and other venues using a proprietary dynamic pricing model.
While the eight finalists each received prize money, a large selling point of the Carolina Challenge is to simply let student entrepreneurs go through the process of a pitch competition and receive feedback on their ventures.
“I think for a lot of student entrepreneurs, they have a great idea but they haven’t yet learned how they can communicate that to the public and get people excited,” says Anne Burke Baldridge, one of the students in charge of planning the year-long event.
After the November “Pitch Party”, where 100 teams made short pitches to a floating panel of judges, the spring portion of the competition allowed teams to narrow their focus.
“The biggest aspect of Carolina Challenge is the educational aspect,” Baldridge says. “It shouldn’t be a competition with the goal of solely rewarding money to the best teams, but it should be an experience that allows students to become better entrepreneurs.”
1st Place—Unisource is an online platform connecting college students with project-based work opportunities inside of early stage startups. The platform, which is designed to offer a more flexible alternative to traditional startup work arrangements, will be accessible via website and smartphone app.
2nd Place—Talk With Sam is a mobile platform that helps Asian students develop their English speaking skills. The platform pairs students with native American English speakers referred to as “tutors” in an on-demand marketplace. After its recent beta launch, the app was downloaded nearly 300 times and received positive coverage in the Chinese tech media.
3rd Place—LineLeader is a mobile “fast pass” app that allows customers to pay to skip lines at restaurants, bars, nightclubs and other venues. The team has developed a proprietary pricing algorithm based on real-time demand. A portion of the proceeds from every transaction are donated to charities of a venue’s choice.
4th Place—HoneyHalo is a new, alternative beehive designed to eliminate deadly “cold spots” inside of bee hives. This new design would decrease the amount of bee deaths inside a hive, thus providing a higher return to beekeepers.
5th Place—The Bridge is a niche online publication geared toward Black and Latina women, with a mix of video, audio and written content. The website includes a user-generated component, and aims to host events and act as a marketplace for Black and Latina produced art.
6th Place—SyllaSync is a syllabus creation and maintenance tool for university faculty members, and offers a mobile app component to notify students of any syllabus changes or upcoming assignment deadlines. It is being marketed as a supplement to pre-existing platforms like Blackboard and Sakai.
7th Place—MissDevelopIT is a summer camp and after school program designed for elementary and middle school girls, aimed at cultivating interest and skills in computer science among young girls. The program includes a game-heavy curriculum and is taught by female computer science students.
8th Place—The Helping Hand Project creates 3D-printed prosthetic hands that offer an alternative for children who cannot utilize or afford a traditional model. Featured in several national media outlets, the hands are produced—from design to delivery—for $30 or less.