Aiming for more than $42,000 in prizes, the young University of Toronto entrepreneurs pitching to investors packed their presentations with 3D animations, live classical guitar serenades, product giveaways hidden under audience chairs – and one very efficient mop bucket.
Welcome to demo night at the Entrepreneurship Hatchery, the startup incubator at U of T Engineering, where 13 companies competed for backing, including a top investment of $20,000: the Lacavera Prize, sponsored by alumnus and CEO of WindMobile, Tony Lacavera.
The teams were chosen by a panel of industry and entrepreneurship experts as the most promising of the initial crop of 37 companies that The Hatchery had started working with last May. (Read more about The Entrepreneurship Hatchery)
Each company included at least one engineering student but also drew members from a mix of backgrounds including biology, computer science and environmental science.
They had pulled together their ideas and business models during four months of intense industry mentorship, entrepreneurship skills development and engagement with engineering’s equipment and resources. Finally, on September 11, the teams hovered at the back of a room of judges and audience members for their big demo night, jumpy and primed to fight for real funding.
“This is an example of passion, dedication and entrepreneurship and this is exactly what the Hatchery is about,” said Hatchery director Joseph Orozco, gesturing to the crowd of students at the back. “Those entrepreneurial skills that you guys have been developing will stay for life with you.”
The result was more than a dozen slickly presented pitches making a case for a $20,000 injection into their business, with each company contending for a product or service more surprising and genuinely useful than the last. For starters, how about mop wringing?
Walking out from the stairwell and towards The Hatchery presentation room on the second floor of Galbraith Building, the evening’s judges and audience members had squeezed past a group of students wheeling a neon yellow plastic mop bucket back and forth. This could easily have been dismissed as a caretaker’s tool left in a less than convenient location.
Yet, after welcome comments and background details from Orozco and Hatchery advisor Joseph Paradi, the first company to compete for the Lacavera investment strode onto the stage – pushing the mop bucket.
What followed was a clear description and demonstration of a useful product for an underserved market: as one team member held up a sopping mop and, with a single gesture and while remaining upright, wrung it dry, the rest of the team explained how Power Wring’s business model is founded on small and affordable add-on to mop wringers that can save time and preserve the neck- and back-health of tens of thousands of caretaking staff across Canada and beyond. They’d already validated their concept with feedback from U of T's caretaking department, which also signed on as Power Wring’s first customer.
In each of the five-minute pitches that followed, the same format was echoed: problem, solution, market projection and comparisons, validation, business model and team introductions. The Hatchery-trained entrepreneurs brought forth businesses grounded in their unique hacks of medical diagnostics (AccSYS Diagnostics), content marketing (Dabble), hydrogen-fueled vehicles (Hydron), breathable outerwear (Delta Outerwear) and more.
But then there were the extras. To set them apart as more memorable, more real, more quirky than the rest of the pack – and to make them stand out in the minds of the judges – some companies included special elements in their presentations. At times, the demos resembled a Dragons Den-style hybrid of investment showcase and performance-based entertainment.
Mech Minds, a company vying for an investment in its innovation for grocery store checkout systems, created a virtual supermarket on stage, scanning cans of coffee and boxes of ice cream into the cloud. Savvy (pictured)
, a company developing a new way to connect fashion retailers with customers – thanks to an algorithm they developed for atmospheric physics – cast team members in a theatrical simulation of the Eaton Centre.
Konnectivity presented its networking app with all members dressed in tuxedos, and closed the presentation with a classical guitar performance. Oonbox, a business communications software company, tucked business cards loaded with token credits for their system under each audience member’s chair. And Shour, a company that installed its ‘smart’ showerhead system on stage, leveraged a running joke about one of their co-founders’ distaste for bathing to get the audience on its side with humour and personal connection.
But the companies that came away with the evening’s prizes needed only to present their facts.
Judges awarded the $2,500 Orozco prize to Power Wring, the mop gadget mentioned earlier, and one of two $10,000 prizes to LoftShare, a company developing software to streamline the roommate search, housing rental, lease application and negotiation, and rent payment process. (It's already started to experience a buzz around Toronto after launching only the first portion of its plan – the roommate pairing service.) And Pheedloop, which developed speaker and conference feedback software already in use by a professional client in the U.K., took the other $10,000 investment.
The main event, the $20,000 Lacavera Prize, went to FuelWear, a company that already launched its concept on crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo and beat its target for investment in just six days.
,offers “the first smart heated base layer” for users looking to stay warm for up to five hours as they ski, hike, or just try to walk to the grocery store in the midst of a polar vortex. (Read more about FuelWear)
Judy Paradi taught FuelWear co-founders Alex Huang and Jason Yakimovich in a fourth-year entrepreneurship course at the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering. She gave a visible start when the news was announced and the audience hollered and cheered.
“I’m so happy for them; they were fantastic students,” said Paradi. “A lot of kids enter the class and they don’t really know if they want to be entrepreneurs, but you could tell right from the beginning, they were serious.
"They started with a coat that didn’t make any sense but we worked through various iterations and they were totally committed. I’m so pleased for them, I couldn't be happier.”