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Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Student startups pitch post-pandemic possibilities

UNC-Chapel Hill students competed in the Carolina Challenge Pitch Party by explaining how their startup ventures will make an economic and social impact in a variety of sectors – from ecommerce and fashion to biotechnology and public health.

A screenshot of a Zoom call with several people.
Carolina students pitch their startup ideas to judges during the 2020 Carolina Challenge Pitch Party.

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t dampened the passion and inventiveness Carolina students show toward launching new startup companies. Competitions like the Carolina Challenge Pitch Party give students the funding and entrepreneurial lessons they need to launch and grow new ventures.

This year, there were no poker chips for judges to vote with. No blue cups (from the Chapel Hill bar He’s Not Here) that students could use to collect the chips in. And no Kenan Stadium Blue Zone packed with student teams making their two-minute startup pitches.

Like nearly all in-person-turned-virtual events at UNC-Chapel Hill and beyond, the 2020 Carolina Challenge Pitch Party looked a lot different this year than in the past. Yet, the focus of the student teams participating in this year’s competition was unwavering in its focus on the future: How to win funding to help launch startups that will make a social and economic impact, even beyond the reach of the pandemic.

Several weeks before this year’s edition of UNC-Chapel Hill’s largest campus-wide student pitch competition, 58 student teams comprised of 126 students total submitted one-minute, rapid-pitch videos as part of their applications to compete. Those video-based pitches were reviewed by a judging committee of staff and students from the Entrepreneurship Center at Kenan-Flagler Business School to identify a top set of teams for the competition finals.  The top 20 teams convened online to make five-minute final pitches to sets of judges in four primary categories:

  • Early-stage social
  • Early-stage non-social
  • Late-stage social
  • Late-stage non-social

“The virtual format allowed us to do things we hadn’t previously done before,” said Nada Boughelam Carolina Challenge Student President and a junior at Kenan-Flagler Business School. “For example, we allowed finalists to circulate video pitches online for a most-buzzworthy award. Through that, we were able to engage over 1,300 people through online voting, more than double the number of judges we have in a normal year.”

The Pitch Party, which is hosted and organized by a team of staff and students from the Entrepreneurship Center, is a campus-wide endeavor that pulled together students teams from 28 majors and 25 minors, including students who are earning a minor through the College of Arts & Sciences’ Shuford Program in Entrepreneurship.

The diversity of student backgrounds, areas of study and interests culminates in a wide assortment of creative startup ideas and early ventures. This year, students pitches included everything from environmentally focused concepts (a membership-based compostable packaging business) to fashion-driven ventures (e-commerce solutions for African and vintage apparel) and public health-related and COVID-inspired technologies (medical diagnostics designed to prevent opioid addiction and devices that use UVC light to sanitize water bottles and other everyday items).

“The Carolina Challenge Pitch Party brings together student innovators and entrepreneurial mentors from nearly every corner of the University to make their best pitches for their shot at earning cash prizes to build their idea or venture,” said Aspyn Fulcher, assistant director of student engagement at the Entrepreneurship Center. “This year, it was amazing to see not only the diversity of ideas, but the versatility, creativity and resiliency of our student teams as they developed their ideas, honed their skills, and performed their pitches in a fully digital mode. We’re excited that this experience spotlights the way student entrepreneurs continue to remain highly engaged in the broader innovation network at Carolina, in addition to their studies and despite numerous challenges in the world around them, to move an increasing number of ideas and solutions forward.”

Based on the votes of judges, the Pitch Party awarded $7,250 to winning student teams as top-place finishers and runners-up in the four primary categories and to two other noteworthy teams who earned awards for the most buzzworthy and best live pitches. While the best live pitch was determined via live online polling during the event, the most buzzworthy prize was awarded to the team that received the most votes from among 1,300 web surveys completed prior to the finals by people involved in the University’s entrepreneurial community who viewed the finalists’ rapid-pitch videos posted online.

The weeks leading up to this year’s event required students and staff who were organizing the event to think in entrepreneurial ways themselves as they navigated a new format and approach required by the pandemic period. “Taking an event that usually hosts over 500 people annually and recreating it online was challenging. However, the uncertainty of the times can breed innovation, and it is the ideal moment for a competition like Pitch Party to uplift student entrepreneurs,” said Boughelam. “The most rewarding thing for me this year was having to put myself in the participants’ shoes. I had to be entrepreneurial myself in completely redesigning the structure of the competition and pitching it to the community in order to attract judges, student entrepreneurs, and attendees.”

Boughelam noted that the payoff was rewarding for both the event organizers and student teams. “I am incredibly proud to have supported eight student-run ventures with $7,000 in funding for growth,” she said.

Student startups at UNC-Chapel Hill contribute to the local and global economic impact of Carolina-affiliated startups. Since 1958, Carolina students, faculty and staff have launched 731 total Carolina-affiliated startups, with 72% (526 total ventures) currently active and 84% of active Carolina-connected startups are headquartered in North Carolina. Based on a snapshot analysis, by the end of fiscal year 2020, these startups generated $15 billion in annual revenue and employed 87,311 globally (13,339 in North Carolina).

Meet the winning teams at Innovate.unc.edu

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