Free Enterprise Staff  | November 21, 2014

What’re the 4 Best Startups in New York City?

There was something about the way that Steve Jobs delivered a pitch for a new product that can’t be captured by words alone. His combination of confidence, personal flair, and a knowing smile all melded perfectly onstage. Dressed in his trademark jeans and black turtleneck, Jobs even managed to somehow stand out while silhouetted against simple black backdrops, introducing the world to products like the iPhone and iPad.

You can’t really appreciate Jobs’s showmanship until you’ve physically been in an audience and watched founders pitch their companies. Last night in New York City, we had the opportunity to do just that at the Challenge Cup tournament, which pitted 30 startups against one another across four categories—health, education, energy, and smart cities—in a fight to be named one of the four semifinalists who will go on to compete next May in Washington, D.C., for the competition’s $250,000 grand prize.

The 30 founders who competed last night were selected from more than 100 applications, according to 1776, the organization that created and spearheads the annual contest. During the first round, each of them was allocated just 60 seconds to pitch their business to a team of judges who whittled the group down to eight. Those semifinalists were then given five minutes to offer a more in-depth look into their companies, a period that was followed by a three-minute Q&A session.

To have a successful business, you need to be able to sell your company—and, by extension, yourself. Though some people turned in Jobs-esque performances last night, there were some, well, clunkers. That’s the name of the game, though, when dozens of people are striving to stand out and have only a minute to do so. You need to be clear and concise, and you’ve also got to show what your company does, why it’s viable, and how it’s performed so far. If yousuffer from stage fright, or maybe you just love to talk, then you’re at an immediate disadvantage.

So, what were our takeaways from last night’s event? There’s a ton of entrepreneurial talent in New York City, for one. For another, the city’s health, smart cities, and education startup scenes seem to be particularly strong, with a number of really interesting and promising businesses represented at the Challenge Cup. Compared to those strong companies, fewer competed in the energy division, which also had some underwhelming pitches (not including that field’s winner, Sealed).

Echoing a theme we heard during Tuesday’s Innovation That Matters event, women entrepreneurs turned out in droves last night, proving that New York City is definitely a go-to location for female founders. One such entrepreneur was also one of the night’s big winners, with her company, OpenBeds, claiming the health prize. Perhaps fittingly, her direct competition in the health field was Urgent Consult, another female-led startup that made it to the semifinal round.

With some of the categories teeming with promising startups, there were a handful of companies that didn’t win but still caught our attention. At the top of that list was Campus Job, an education startup that helps college students find full- and part-time jobs during the school year. Though it made it to the semifinal round, Campus Job—run by co-founder Liz Wessel—ultimately lost out to Cognotion, whose mission is to help entry-level workers gain the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.

Among the night’s four finalists, Bandwagon left us asking the most questions about its potential viability. The company essentially offers an Uber-like service, having developed an algorithm that allows strangers to share rides in taxis and car services. While the company would undoubtedly eliminate waste and could indeed prove us wrong, its business model just seemed a bit risky and very similar to that of Uber and Lyft. Nonetheless, we’re intrigued to see how the company fares in D.C. next spring.

Like the education category, we were more intrigued by the field’s runner-up, a company named Bar & Club Stats that lets bars and restaurants use smartphone technology to check IDs. Once an ID is scanned, the startup collects anonymous user data that can then be used for any manner of purposes. Imagine, for instance, a bar owner being able to post on its Facebook page that it’s currently filled with 20-something men. That’s the kind of marketing that gets heads in the door—and money in your cash register. We were also impressed by the company’s co-founder, an IP attorney who effortlessly answered every question thrown his way.

With New York City now in the rearview mirror, the Challenge Cup is going international, with upcoming regional competitions in Buenos Aires, Tel Aviv, and Amman. Just like in New York, four winners—one from each category—will be selected to compete in next spring’s final tournament. Stay tuned for more news on those events, as well as ones that will follow on the road to D.C.