For the first time in three years, the lively New Venture Challenge (NVC) championship returned to an in-person format at the Boulder Theater this week to recognize CU Boulder’s top emerging entrepreneurs.
Five startup ventures, led by CU Boulder students and faculty, competed for more than $100,000 in prize money Tuesday evening at the 14th annual New Venture Challenge championship, CU Boulder’s premier entrepreneurial program and competition. Since its inception in 2009, more than 900 CU Boulder startups have participated with over $700,000 in NVC funding awarded.
Each team delivered a well-rehearsed five-minute pitch and answered questions from four judges—themselves global leaders in venture capital and startup support.
Long-time charismatic emcee Brad Bernthal, NVC co-founder, director of the Silicon Flatirons Center’s Entrepreneurship Initiative and associate professor in the Law School, arrived in light-hearted, cheeky form in a white one-piece suit crisscrossed with red and blue stripes and white stars.
“Successful companies don’t just materialize out of thin air. It’s crucial that we get together in settings like the New Venture Challenge. Startups are fragile little things with limited resources, and they need a ton of help to succeed,” said Bernthal. “Tonight, we celebrate that we’ve come together because in entrepreneurship, no one goes it alone.”
Bernthal didn’t stay serious for long. After introducing the judges, he hit a tennis ball into the crowd (those who caught one received swag bags) and exclaimed: “All right, we waited three years to get back here. Let’s get our money’s worth tonight!”
A MOLECULAR REVOLUTION
First place winner, Chembotix, walked away with $45,000 and an ambition to dramatically speed up chemistry research and development.
Making molecules in current laboratory settings is typically time consuming and dangerous, but it’s essential to pharmaceutical and industrial research and development. By automating organic chemistry processes through a robotic system made from a unique marriage of chemistry and engineering, Chembotix can not only create molecules 16 times faster than typical methods but do so more safely and consistently, and at a cheaper cost.
“This is the product I’ve wanted since I’ve entered the lab myself,” said Kailey Shara, Chembotix founder and CEO.
Developed during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, ATLAS Institute doctoral candidate Shara even built her own lab and a prototype in her living room because of safety restrictions these past two years. This revolution in the way new molecules are made can not only address the science of the next pandemic, but make major chemical companies more competitive employers.
A Venture Partners at CU Boulder company, winner of the 2021 Audience Choice Award at NVC14 and third-place winner at this year’s Female Founders Special Prize Night, Chembotix has been moving at light speed since its inception.
The 2022 championship pair credited chemistry—both the organic and interpersonal kind—with their success. Shara and Aditya Rengaswamy, Chembotix CFO, met seven years ago at Case Western Reserve University, and have enjoyed working together since.
“I knew she was going to do something brilliant one day, so I made sure I didn’t lose touch,” said Rengaswamy.
3D PRINTING AND FAMILY MESSAGING
The other four teams—Vitro3D, Familyfirst, Birk and Fulltilt Motion Labs—pitched business solutions to medical, social, creative and entertainment dilemmas.
Second-place winner Vitro3D, pitched by CEO and co-founder Camila Uzcategui, articulated a new, cost-effective method of 3D printing that doesn’t use layers and can mix and match different materials. Vitro3D aims to use volumetric 3D printing to print dental retainers, aligners and mouthguards in a provider’s office—and then move on to mimic materials inside the human body, to help with life-saving medical procedures.
The marvelous materials science behind it all is based on Uzcategui’s doctoral degree and getting to apply it to the real world as a business is “the most rewarding experience of my PhD,” she said.
Vitro3D is also a Venture Partners at CU Boulder company, placed second at the 2022 Female Founders Special Prize Night and was a finalist at the 2021 Lab Venture Challenge.
Familyfirst, third-place winner of the night, aims to liberate families from hospital waiting rooms by implementing a HIPPA-compliant, one-way messaging app in hospitals. This allows nurses to quickly update families about their loved one’s status during and after surgery, cutting down on calls and confusion during an already stressful time. The easy-to-use app can also translate updates into different languages, breaking down communications barriers in healthcare.
Upon receiving his award, Familyfirst CEO Randy Perecman credited meeting all the people: the judges, companies and organizers involved in NVC, as the best part of the experience.
“It’s worth just as much as the money,” said Perecman.
Tied for fourth place, Birk and Fulltilt Motion Labs addressed how we experience the world around us through stimuli.
Birk is a new Yerba Mate drink with all-natural ingredients and long-lasting caffeine, created to fuel the all-undergrad student team’s dreams as athletes, creatives and adventurers.
Fulltilt Motion Labs is the designer behind a headband that affects your sense of balance, which could eliminate nausea and enhance the immersive experience for VR headset users.
- 1st place: Chembotix ($45,000)
- 2nd place: Vitro3D ($33,500)
- 3rd place: Familyfirst ($10,000)
- T-4th place: Birk ($5,000)
- T-4th place: Fulltilt Motion Labs ($5,000)
- Audience choice award: TissueForm ($1,500)
A HOME FOR ENTREPRENEURSHIP
“This is an incredibly inspiring night where we can showcase the hard work of our teams, as they have been working to develop their ventures since the New Venture Challenge “season” began in fall 2021,” said Christine Gustavson, director of Innovation & Entrepreneurship.
Gustavson opened the event with several exciting updates: this past year, CU Boulder was awarded the APLU Innovation and Economic Prosperity Award, and placed 13th out of the top 20 U.S. university-sponsored collegiate entrepreneurship competitions, according to the Times of Entrepreneurship.
“We’ve seen so much progress these past few years as teams have come up with ideas, developed concepts and tweaked their ventures based on all of the coaching and feedback provided by faculty and community mentors,” she said. “Every year, we are wowed by the progress made, and the power of collaborating across colleges and disciplines.”
Gustavson also took a moment to recognize Terri Fiez, who is retiring after six years at CU Boulder as vice chancellor for research and innovation and dean of the institutes.
“As I learned more about this community, I felt like a kid in a candy store,” said Fiez. “I want to thank this community for being who you are.”