Free Enterprise Staff  | July 20, 2016

D.C. just held the startup Olympics. The winning companies will blow you away

Next month in Rio, the world’s greatest athletes will gather to compete for the title of fastest runner and highest jumper, best swimmer and sharpest shooter. Recently, one group in D.C. held a rather similar global competition, only rather than looking for the world’s fastest or strongest, the group sought to find the most innovative.

And for the third year running, the competition was as fierce and the competitors were inspiring.

Based in the nation’s capital, 1776 only invests in companies that are tackling challenges in areas like education, energy and sustainability, health care, and transportation. Approximately six weeks ago, the incubator—which is also a longtime partner of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—wrapped up its third annual global startup competition, called the Challenge Cup, in which the group seeks to identify the most impactful startup on Earth.

During the challenge, new and early-stage companies from 54 cities competed in local “tournaments.” One winner (selected by a panel of investors and successful entrepreneurs) from each region was then flown to D.C. to take part in a final pitch round for the chance to win up to $1 million in funding—and $175,000 in grants—as well as an opportunity to network with some of the world’s top investors, entrepreneurs and government leaders.

The challenge is different every year, but it always features groundbreaking startups from several industries. This year’s competitors included San Francisco-based EverCharge, which helps electric vehicle owners find and plug into efficient energy grids; 1DOC3; an online platform out of Bogota, Colombia, that provides Spanish-speaking communities with access to physicians 24 hours a day; and Moroccan startup GoMobile, which is focused on closing the digital divide in developing countries.

“We go all over the world to find startups,” said Erin McPike, communications director for 1776, adding that incubator staffers are on the ground scoping for talent at regional competitions. “There are a lot of pitch competitions all over the world, but you end up seeing the same startups over and over again. We decided to open ours up to everyone and pay for them to fly to D.C. if they win regionals, so that no one is left out.”

We recently spoke to the founder of this year’s winning startup—the gold medal holder, if you will—and caught up with the last two year’s winners. Check out their groundbreaking innovations and learn about the major challenges they are tackling below.

MUrgency (2016 winner)

The healthcare sector is ripe for innovation and MUrgency (pronounced em-urgency) is doing its part to reshape the industry by making urgent care available for people who otherwise might not get it.

Before he founded MUrgency in 2014, Shaffi Mather was already a seasoned healthcare entrepreneur—but in a very different business. The Harvard graduate also co-founded a project called Dial 1298 for Ambulance, a for-profit 911-style emergency dispatch service. Individuals in Mumbai and nearby states simply dial 1-2-9-8 from a landline or mobile phone to be connected with an ambulance near them.

“I founded and built one of the largest ambulance companies in the developing world as an entrepreneur, but I recognized two years back that an ambulance company does not even make a drop in an ocean of need for reliable emergency medical response across the world,” Mather said.

MUrgency harnesses mobile technology to create an emergency response network that connects users in Punjab, India with local medical professionals. Users download the free app and they’ll have the opportunity to get a local doctor, nurse or paramedic in their area come to their rescue or just simply receive advice from medical practitioners over the phone.

The 2016 cash prize will help improve MUrgency, but Mather says the company remains laser-focused on its original mission.

“We are still committed to building one global response network to provide low-cost, efficient, effective and reliable emergency response to anyone, anytime,” he said.

Twiga Foods (2015 winner)

This Nairobi-based startup is hoping to change the urban food distribution model in Kenya, and perhaps one day all of Africa, for the better.

The B2B company lets vendors in the East African country order food through its mobile platform. It also provides these small-to-medium sized businesses, kiosk stalls and retailers with the ability to manage their products and helps formalize the consumer goods market in the country.

“The businesses seem informal, but there’s a whole lot of value in each of those stalls,” Grant Brooke, CEO and Twiga cofounder, said during his pitch last year to judges. “Every retailer is worth about $50 every day—and there are 18,000 in Nairobi alone. From an IT platform perspectives, the metrics are off the charts in terms of revenue per customer.”

Since last year’s win, the startup has been busy growing its operations,  bringing on more staff, clients, and expanding the products it ships—from simply just bananas to avocados, pineapples and tomatoes.

HandUp (2014 winner)
This crowdfunding startup is on a mission to hack homelessness in the U.S. one donation at a time and, in the process, prove that technology can be a vital tool for social good.

Founded by Rose Broome, a former data scientist at design studio SuperBetter Labs, and tech entrepreneur Sammie Rayner in 2013, the mobile application allows the general public a single online platform from which to donate to a diverse group of non-profits and registered charities that are tackling homelessness. After a donation, users receive a thank-you note with details about the non-profit organization to which they donated and how the donation will be used.

Since 2014, the company has increased the number of clients using its platform from approximately 10 to 55.

Broome is most proud of a new feature she calls “donation cards,” which allows individuals to upload money to a company data card that homeless individuals can use to pay for services. The cards are good for hot meals, clothing, health bills and more, but can only be cashed in at shelters or select organizations.

“This way you can help a specific person, and you also know you’re helping to connect them not only with a resource they need, but with a larger organization that can help them in other ways,” she said.