The University of Virginia’s i.Lab turned to the community on Wednesday night for help identifying Charlottesville’s next big idea. It sponsored the Crowdfunded Pitch Night at the Tom Tom Founders Festival, an event in which 10 aspiring entrepreneurs made their cases to a large audience gathered at the Paramount Theater.
Competitors were given three minutes to present their venture ideas before the audience voted for a winner. Every year, the winner has the choice of taking the prize money collected from the audience or taking the last spot in the i.Lab’s summer incubator program, which includes a $5,000 expense budget.
“It’s pretty great having someone whose been voted in by the community as part of our cohort,” said Jason Brewster, who directs the i.Lab’s Incubator Program. “Most of the ones that come in from the Crowdfunded Pitch Night are non-profit or community-oriented in some way, so it really gives back.”
This year, the crowd selected the youngest winners in the history of the pitch night. St. Anne’s-Belfield School 11th-grade students Leela Ghaemmaghami and Clara Duffy won with their technology outreach company, Seniors Connect. It’s a service they founded to help older citizens set up and learn to use new electronic devices.
They hope to use their victory at Crowdfunded Pitch Night to expand their services to low-income seniors.
“Our second area of expansion is writing an app called ‘Doctor’s Orders,’ which is a medication notification app,” Duffy said.
Duffy and Ghaemmaghami have a week to decide whether they will accept the funds pooled by the crowd – just over $4,000 – or the space in the i.Lab Incubator. (If they choose the i.Lab, the funds raised by the crowd will go back to the Tom Tom Festival.)
The runner-up was Ewa Harr and her company, Little Planets. Harr creates sustainable, nature-inspired play areas for babies and children at festivals and live events. As the second-place winner, she will receive a space in Charlottesville’s Community Investment Collaborative, a local business-education and financing program.
The remaining eight contestants may not have walked away with prizes, but many caught the attention of their fellow citizens and generated a lot of excited buzz among the crowd.
That was certainly the case for UVA third-year and computer science major Alan Wei. His “CloudGrow” idea is a kind of “smart box” that uses a fully automated system to grow and care for plants. It automatically adjusts things like light levels and watering times, and connects to an app that shows users their plant’s progress.
Other proposals came from all around the Charlottesville community, and many included a social good element.
Giles Jackson’s Liberation Kilt Company, for example, is designing new tartan with a purpose. Each of its patterns represents a different cause and 20 percent of profits will go to non-governmental organizations. Jackson resides in Charlottesville now, but the native Briton has been working carefully with the Scottish Tartans authority to make sure all his designs are approved.
While Liberation Kilt Company is aiming for a global reach, Monica Green of Precious Cargo Specialized Transport shared her idea to help local children. Green has a master’s degree in special education, and recently learned that the city schools must pay for separate transportation for children with behavior issues – often, expensive daily cab rides.
“I want to provide a better service than just a typical, everyday cab. I want to start with mental health,” Green said.
She pitched her plan for a small fleet of vans driven by trained mental health and behavioral specialists like herself. They would offer children a calming environment on the way to school and counseling when necessary.
Like Green, Ian Pasquarelli and his teammates planned to start local with their idea, The Kitchen Network. They proposed a local network of commercial kitchens that are not constantly in use during the day, such as those found in some churches and catering companies. They want to add these to an Airbnb-style platform that would allow small business owners to rent them instead of having to buy their own large space.
“We’re trying to just give back to community and find a way to help small food business entrepreneurs,” Pasquarelli said.
Other pitches included locally designed bags made from recycled materials, a home design company, an online portal for parenting tools and education, and an online magazine for owners of small businesses in Virginia.
The Tom Tom entrepreneurship competitions will continue Friday evening with UVA’s Entrepreneurship Cup and Galant Challenge.