Sheryll Poe  | October 30, 2013

Inside the Gladiator Arena: The DC Challenge Cup Pitch Competition

My mouth is dry. My hands are a bit clammy. My eyes dart around the room trying to gauge whether the listeners are still interested.

Forgive my nerves. This is my first time covering a pitch event.

It’s probably much worse for the entrepreneurs actually doing the pitching.

Over the course of three hours at 1776’s downtown campus, an audience of more than 450 people laughed, groaned, and sat on the edge of our seats while 36 bright, shiny, and hopeful startups gave lightning fast one minute pitches before they were ruthlessly whittled down to eight and then just four. All for our entertainment.

Well, actually, it was for the chance to represent Washington D.C. during the weeklong Challenge Cup festival in May 2014. That’s when 64 competitors from around the world will face off for industry connections, mentoring, media exposure, and cold, hard cash (ok, fine, a $150,000 convertible note). But most importantly, the ultimate winner will get some supreme bragging rights.

As we watched the first 36 entrepreneurs give their pitches, I couldn’t help but be nervous for them. Some got tongue-tied as they sped through their carefully rehearsed one-minute spiel. Some had that deer-in-the-headlight look. Others faced the ultimate judgment – the gong if they went over their allotted minute.

The competitors and their products were incredibly diverse. A whole row of us fell in love with the E-Mow pitch after founder Jason Force described his grass-powered robot micro-harvester (mower) as a “Roomba for your lawn.”

Likewise, Kinergy Health founder Gail Embt made sure her company was memorable by doing her pitch in a poem format. Not an easy task for a company that provides “simplified care management with technology and care navigator model.”

But ultimately, a fair and diverse panel of judges—including the U.S. Chamber’s Al Martinez-Fonts—had the unenviable task of picking finalists for the categories — education, health care, energy and the environment, and “smart cities.”  Even though the competition was fierce, there were no fights among the judges, according to Emeka Moneme, deputy executive director for Federal City Council. “There was a lot of consensus actually. The cream really rose right to the top. I’ll tell you the energy and health care spaces were really good. A small number but really high quality,” he told me after the event.

The same could not be said out in the main 1776 space. While the judges were deliberating, the rest of us had our own judging session—speculating and comparing notes, vigorously debating who would move on to the five-minute pitch and three-minute question-and-answer session. Meanwhile, the nervous entrepreneurs finally got some food and relaxed on couches, their fates now out of their hands.

Eventually, a buzz in the room indicated that the judges were back and the sight of some large security staff preceded the appearance of Washington D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray.

The mayor had stopped by to congratulate 1776 on its success and announce the eight semi-finalists — ChronoKair and Dorsata would duke it out in the health care division; Ethical Electric and Sunnovations would bring the heat in the energy category; EdBacker would try to school eduCanon; and RideScout would try to outsmart fellow smart cities category competitor TransitLabs.

The room thinned out a bit, but it was encouraging to see a lot of the knocked-out competitors stick around to cheer on their former rivals.

The five-minute pitches from the final eight were a bit more relaxed and you really got to know the personalities behind the startups. For example, Dorsata’s David Fairbrothers was a center and guard on the University of Virginia’s varsity football team. Ethical Electric’s founder and CEO Tom Matzzie couldn’t be at the event so his VP Richard Graves had to step up and give the pitch.

The question-and-answer session included discussions of things like, traction, revenue streams, algorithms. After another deliberation pause, the judges finally declared the four winners – Dorsata, Ethical Electric, eduCanon and RideScout.

The battle was over and the photo-ops began, as the winners posed proudly on the stage. Groups of supporters gathered around the entrepreneurs who had not been picked as they congratulated their former-rivals, now-friends for a job well done.

They had all done D.C. very proud.

For more on the D.C. Challenge Cup event, go check out “Top 10 Takeaways (and 4 Winners) from D.C.’s Challenge Cup Kickoff” by 1776 staffer Melissa Steffan.