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More than a Pitch Competition: Challenge Cup Is a Microphone and Matchmaker

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Startup pitch competitions are a dime a dozen.

Especially in places like Silicon Valley, where a savvy entrepreneur could present his or her solution every night of the week and then some for practice, for financial prizes large and small or to gain a following, lovers of “Shark Tank” could have a field day hearing business ideas aplenty while scarfing down pounds of free pizza.

In each of its 16 stops, Challenge Cup ended with a pitch contest. But the epic 1776 event series, which spanned six months and nine non-U.S. countries, is far from just a pitch contest.

What difference does it make in the grand scheme? And what impact does this crazy global startup searchand the companies that are a part of itactually have?

As I finish up a 6-month fellowship covering all things Challenge Cup, this is my sense:

There’s a veritable cornucopia of startup ecosystems springing up around the world.

Some are in expected places like New Yorkalthough that ecosystem has emerged surprisingly late compared to its peers and given the Big Apple’s global sway and massively ambitious populace. And some are in more far flung places like Nairobi, Bangalore or even Mexico City.

Whether they’re government-backed or emanating organically from a community of developers, the most promising hubs are not just trying to be the Valley; they’re taking their inherent gifts and longstanding problems and running with them.

For Nairobi, that means playing up Kenya’s heavily embraced mobile payment system and tackling pressing needs, such as the abundant number of residents without power. Dublin’s close-knit community and history in the finance business is helping it take off as a place for startups, particularly with a financial-tech bend. Tel Aviv’s mandatory Army service has created a risk-friendly culture with technically skilled young people fresh out of military service and ripe to start companies.

Challenge Cup, for one thing, is a tour of a number of these hubs, literally and figuratively. By documenting what’s there and what’s to come, Challenge Cup showcases how innovation hubs are the same and different the world over. It uncovers the common threads along with the nuances.

There’s some cross-pollination between these startup cities and countries. However, that’s scattered and haphazard at best. Challenge Cup proved that there are a lot of scenarios in which a company starts in one place and then either fans out or moves to a different part of the world for strategic reasons.

Indian entrepreneurs incorporate in Singapore because the paperwork and processes are less cumbersome—but then they move back to Bangalore because the climate, cost of living and weather make for a desirable base of operations. Similarly, a Jordanian company might test out a concept in the Middle East and then expand it to the United States because the market is more sizable. A Berlin-based business, started by a mixed group of European founders, keeps a presence in both Germany and Chicago, while manufacturing its product in Asia.

Examples like these came up often.

International overlap and collaboration is happening; it’s just not deliberate and exists at a company level for the most part. Driving connections across ecosystems, as Challenge Cup does, otherwise isn’t really happening. Still, it’s needed.

Because of its four startup categories, Challenge Cup is, by design, recruiting startups that are game-changing at their core.

Truth be told, there are trivial education, energy, health and smart cities startups; they’re just few and far between. Most of the entrepreneurs breaking through or getting around highly regulated industries are highly motivated movers and shakers, determined and hell bent on shaking up the status quowhether that’s how society cares for the sick, educates students, provides energy or gets from one place to another.

Those startups that won their respective categories and are advancing to the Challenge Festival did so because they separated themselves from the pack in a memorable way.

Sure, their business began with a great ideas; in most cases, they also have an effective pitch to convey it. But there is absolutely no such thing as an original idea, especially in the world of startups. Challenge Cup, with hundreds of competitors and thousands of applicants, illuminates this fact more than anything else that comes to mind.

What mattered more to the judges boiled down to two qualities: potentialis there a big enough market that the solution could scale and scale globally?and tractionis there proof of a viable, money-making business?

Packback Books, which lets university students rent textbooks as opposed to buying them outright, already has 3,200 textbooks on its platform and a $250,000 investment from Shark Tank’s own Mark Cuban.

Digilabrador doesn’t yet have sales but it’s the world’s first handheld device able to pinpoint the precise location of illegal drugs. It’s easy to imagine law enforcement agencies everywhere jumping at the technology.

To get power where it’s deficient, PowerGen already has nine microgrids up and running in Kenya alone and is generating $10,000 in monthly revenue.

Coindrum started as an idea to give world travelers with pocketfuls of foreign currency something better to do with their change. It turns out no one wants coins, so the potential market is much more sizeable than expected. The company, from the get-go, has had the backing of a key figure in the travel industry, Ryanair’s founder.

In a region of the world where women are frequently the victims of violent attacks, SheFighter has trained 10,000 of them in its unique brand of self defense and has 800 trainers at the ready to teach more to fight back. Those numbers are just for Jordan.

When an electric vehicle owner calls up Tesla to ask about charging station providers, Tesla gives just one name: EverCharge.

And Miito, out of Berlin, isn’t even on the market yet with its reimagined electrical kettle, but 4,000 American and European fans are clamoring for the kettles and saying they’d pay 100 euros apiece.

These are just some of the Challenge Cup winners’ strides so far.

Given all of this, 1776, through the Challenge Cup, takes on two distinct roles: matchmaker and microphone.

Startups find out about other startups that might be halfway around the world. Startups are linked up with investors or mentors who otherwise they wouldn’t. Sometimes 1776 funds companies that are in contention. Sometimes other VCs and angels do because they’ve learned about these companies via Challenge Cup. And startups get feedback, public exposure and new customers along the way.

This will only be amplified in May when the 64 winners and a slate of wildcards come to D.C. to finish up what Challenge Cup started.

No matter who wins, it’ll be much more than a simple pitch contest.

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Dena Levitz is traveling to almost all of the Challenge Cup cities to cover the competition and analyze startup ecosystems around the globe. Dena joins 1776 after finishing the first…