The University of Michigan Center for Entrepreneurship’s Startup Competition completed its first non-qualifying round on Friday afternoon in front of a crowd of over 200 students, faculty and local businesspeople at the Stamps Auditorium on North Campus.
The competition began at the beginning of the month with a series of auditions of more than 40 student startups pitching to the Center for Entrepreneurship. Only 13 teams made it through to the actual competition, all aiming to win the final cash prize of more than $15,000 in funding for their startup. The projects range from all different fields, but the majority are based on development of technology and software.
For this round, each startup was given one minute to make its pitch to a panel of four judges from Ann Arbor and Detroit investment and business development firms, who later decided whether or not they wanted to advise and nurture the startup into a full-fledged company. The Startup Competition advertised its event as being similar to the reality television show “The Voice,” as the panel of four judges began facing away from the contestants and turned around only when they wanted to add a contestant to their coterie of startups.
Sonali Vijayavargiya was one of the judges at the event as the founder and managing director of Augment Ventures, a firm that invests in technology and software companies. She said the Startup Competition provides not only a chance for industry leaders to identify budding companies, but to serve in mentorship roles.
"We are taking the investment background that we have and bringing it to the students so that they can build new businesses,” Vijayavargiya said. “I am really looking for opportunity as you know when I look at the new enterprises, I really like to see what kind of a problem they’re solving, what kind of a need they’re meeting and what it takes, what kind of technology and people, it takes to get to that point.”
Vijayavargiya was the first judge to turn around following the pitch and partner with a startup by the name of Cheruvu, which advertises itself as “Big Data for Small Farmers.” The team is made up of three graduate students who aim to build resilient and sustainable villages by employing data science to improve the decisions of small farmers.
ForzaMetrix was the first startup that had two judges turn around and vie for its stewardship. ForzaMetrix, whose three team members have experience in business, engineering and law, pitched itself as a company that can help optimize athletic performance through the use of workout tracking sensors and analytics. Both Scott Taylor, of the Michigan Small Business Development Council, and Jake Cohen, of Detroit Venture Partners, attempted to compel ForzaMetrix to enlist their mentorship.
Taylor sold his company by highlighting how he feels he can help ForzaMetrix build a customer base, but Cohen rebutted by extolling his firm’s connections to professional sports teams and entertainment companies.
"(Detroit Venture Partners) has a lot of connections in the sports and entertainment world, as I work for Dan Gilbert, who owns the Cleveland Cavaliers,” Cohen said. “I would love to work with you.”
ForzaMetrix ultimately sided with Cohen.
One of the companies that elicited a quick turn of the chair was Find Your Ditto, an online service that aims to connect peoples who live with chronic illnesses and build support networks among its members.
Parisa Soraya, a master’s student of health informatics, said seeing Cohen turn around in his chair and select her as someone he wanted to mentor was an exciting experience.
“It was very relieving to be selected because you only have a minute and we had to figure out how to best present the venture quickly and to get someone interested,” Soraya said. “It was really nice, as Jake was our top choice and it worked out.”
Five more startups were chosen by the panelists, with the seven teams, such as Pakochi, Air Mail and FUNL, being left behind and unable to advance to the next round. The second round of the Startup Competition will be on Feb. 10.