The scene at The Pink Ceiling on Wednesday evening was, appropriately, as women-centric and women-relevant as the products and services presented for the InnovateHER pitch competition.
Among the wallpaper, LED-lit wall decor, and chairs all dazzled with different shades of pink stood a group of women-led startups awaiting their chance to pitch to investors and advance to the semi-final round of the national Small Business Administration pitch contest.
Sitting in the front of the room in bright pink chairs was a panel of judges all representing different fields of entrepreneurship: Morgan Spurlock, an Academy Award nominated filmmaker, star and director of the popular documentary Super Size Me, Bethany Edwards, the first national InnovateHER winner for her biodegradable/flushable pregnancy test startup LIA Diagnostics, Morgan Stanley Senior Relationship Manager Suzanne Charnas, and Doug Eckert, an angel investor and executive VP of Orlando building company Hoar Construction.
The room was packed with chattering attendees all sipping the pink rosé on tap and eating taco dinners—so packed, in fact, that The Pink Ceiling founder and InnovateHER host Cindy Whitehead had to announce the start of the competition several times before the room fell silent.
Whitehead has risen to the forefront of the Triangle’s startup community, since her billion dollar exit of Sprout Pharmaceuticals, which developed the first drug to enhance women’s sex drive. Whitehead championed the drug and overcame several hurdles to eventually earn FDA approval.
These successes, coupled with a contagious, positive and bright appeal to women founders has made her someone many in the community look up to as an example of perseverance. She also has an accelerator called The Pinkubator that mentors and funds women-led businesses or women-focused products in various industries.
Whitehead opened up the pitches with encouragement and a nod to the group’s potential, saying “I know that we have the national winner in here tonight.”
SiNON Therapeutics took home the win, and will advance to the semi-final round where founder Afreen Allam will pitch in hopes of advancing to the national competition in Washington D.C. later this year. SiNON, which won an NC IDEA grant in May, is developing an advanced material that allows medication to to cross the blood-brain barrier, in order to safely and more effectively treat neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and brain cancer.
Allam opened her pitch by pointing to the bigger picture. The market for neuroplasticity in delivering medications is huge, estimating $471 million by 2018.
She has already filed two patents, written and published two studies about the drug methods and effects, and conducted initial study trials on animals that yielded successful results.
In addition to the recent NC IDEA grant, Allam has raised $450,000 from friends and family and some cash from the 2015 Duke Startup Challenge. She needs money now for legal work for a future Series A round, and to fund other grant applications.
The pharma market is growing expansively and rapidly, as novel therapeutics are coming to the surface and entering manufacturing for public access. In relation to this, the judges asked about the presence of competition in SiNON’s area of treatment, to which Allam replied that there are no other companies or teams developing the same method. Protein drugs could be considered a competitor but they are specific to one molecule.
In one year, Allam plans to raise a Series A and funding through the National Institutes of Health and the federal Small Business Innovation Research program.
With a slogan that reads “Think Outside the Pill Box,” EllieGrid is led by founder Regina Vetterott. The Houston-based startup is creating a smart medication dispenser that also tracks patient data. The idea came from a struggle Vetterott had after suffering from a vitamin and nutrients deficiency, which requires taking many different pills on a daily basis. She would sometimes forget to take her pills and it took forever to organize the traditional “Monday-Sunday” pill containers. She also felt stigmatized for using it.
EllieGrid advances the pill box and dispenser concept with a sort of smart, “new tech” touch. It has LED lights to indicate which medications to take and tracks when/if patients take their medications.
It targets younger people who take more than one medication per day. Those generations are more open to using technology to solve problems on a regular basis, says Vetterott.
The product still needs testing, but has already completed a crowdfunding campaign, with 1,400 people on the waiting list.
Local innovator and designer Sunny Su, who graduated NC State summa cum laude in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in industrial and product design, is the designer and strategist for the HQ Raleigh-based company Supervize.
Along with Suzanne Phillips, a master’s student in NC State’s Global Innovation Management program, he’s on a mission to improve child safety technology, going beyond existing solutions like hiring more chaperones or employing GPS trackers that aren’t always accurate or produce real-time results.
Su noted that these are all reactive measures that reflect a counterintuitive mistake. “Your child shouldn’t already be lost before you find them,” he says.
Supervize, instead, gives adults an alert to self correct and give themselves a sense of self-responsibility. The wearable tracking wristband is for parents, guardians and/or chaperones to attach to themselves and their kids at amusement parks and entertainment venues. It alerts the “leaders” (i.e. adults watching the group) when a child has passed a certain vicinity, and glows a light.
This team is planning a pilot test this summer with the Durham Bulls Ballpark and Marble Kids Museum, which will take a bulk of wristbands and rent them to visitors.
Then-Duke master’s student Ashlyn Sanders founded NeuroVice shortly after suffering from spontaneous seizures and being diagnosed with an uncommon brain abnormality. She had intensive brain surgery on the same night of her diagnosis, but still suffered from seizures in weeks and months that followed the surgery, and still does today.
Sanders often experiences tongue injuries related to her seizures, and decided to develop her own solution in a medical device (called “PATI”) that protects patients from oral injury when they’re having a seizure episode.
The design protects patients from biting down on their tongue and jaw during seizures, while also preventing salivation that can close breathing airways. The tongue protector is housed in a handheld kit so patients can take it out if they experience a trigger of an impending seizure (though this varies by patient, seizures are often preceded by certain physiological sensations or symptoms). PATI is disposable and the kits can be restocked as the patient needs them.
At the end of Sanders’ pitch, the audience heard short testimonials from a few people who have been affected by seizure-causing disorders, either directly or as the friend or family member of a patient. A healthcare practitioner also spoke to PATI’s potential for making a difference in the lives of her patients.
Sanders recently became a finalist in the 1776 Challenge Cup competition, and will advance to the final round later this year in New York. Sanders is also a finalist for the New England Pediatric Device Consortium pre-seed award.
Her goal is to make “having seizures a little bit easier,” improving and empowering patients and their experiences while preventing traumatic injuries.
More about NeuroVice in an ExitEvent profile.
This pitch of Los Angeles-based SAFE was filled with sexual puns that made the audience giggle and provided a subtle, yet effective introduction to the fact that there are millions of sexually active single adults regularly using dating apps to find strangers; strangers who may or may not have sexually transmitted diseases.
A staggering 52 percent of Millennials say they don’t use condoms. To this point, co-founder and COO Lauren Weiniger notes, “It has never been easier to find your soulmate…or to get an STD.”
SAFE is an app, currently in beta, with a helpful solution: a HIPAA-compliant platform that imports data directly from Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, two institutions Weiniger calls “the Pepsi and Coke of STD testing.”
People can then share their STD status on their phones privately, so partners know their verified testing results beforehand. It also encourages users to get tested themselves, a way of holding them accountable without the stigma.
The long-term goal is for the app to be integrated into mainstream dating/matching platforms to reach more users and spread awareness about the prevalence of STDs and non-safe sex. Weiniger provided a five-year projection to the judge panel: 10 million users and revenue in the millions of dollars.
This Raleigh event was the latest example of the Triangle’s ties to a national movement, to boost access to capital and opportunity for women entrepreneurs.
And The Pinkubator’s role in hosting InnovateHER symbolizes the space evolving as a gathering place for entrepreneurs, especially women—thus elevating the Triangle’s brand to take part in national competitions like this one.