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Trends from Challenge Cup San Francisco: Healthcare Collaboration, Irrigation Revolution + More

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

The assumption about startups coming out of San Francisco is that they’re all trying to be the next Facebook or Angry Birds—an app for the general public that’s not necessarily solving a pressing world problem but whose strategy is to go viral and then figure out revenue later.

That wasn’t the case with the 35 San Francisco competitors during the final Challenge Cup stop.

Entrepreneurs who pitched are teaching autistic individuals how to do presentations and, in the process, stave off some of their social anxieties. They’re employing data to allow superintendents and school leaders to better understand phenomena such as absenteeism and risk of violence plaguing their schools, and to enable parents to make sense of the hundreds upon hundreds of preschool options for their little ones.

Quite a few either have major pilots, million-dollar revenue or recurring deals to their names.

Here are three other trends that emerged across the strong field of competitors:

Tools that enable scientists and doctors to collaborate

Health startups in the San Francisco competition represented a blend of companies tackling specific ailments—like nail fungus infections, using gaming to get patients to manage chronic conditions and even keeping track of seniors via sensors. But several also had a common thread of facilitating sharing between medical and science professionals.

ZappyLab, which had the first-ever successful crowdfunding campaign for a science-research-related venture, is a repository for scientists to stay up to date on protocols for conducting their lab experiments. Right now scientists tend to work on their research in a vacuum, then try to publish their findings in journals. Along the way, they’ll figure out improved methods or gain incremental knowledge without a way to share these strides with peers. ZappyLab fosters that, almost like a gitHub for scientific research, says cofounder Lenny Teytelman.

Past attempts to crowdsource this type of information have failed because the companies haven’t been able to get scientists on board. Teytelman says he managed to do this by first, making smaller tools available to help scientists in their day-to-day lab operations. In turn, this created a community of supporters, who also backed the crowdfunding campaign.

SharePractice is doing something similar for physicians. Cofounder Andrew Brandeis is a doctor by background and says he began by building a resource that he needed: a Yelp for treatments, enabling clinicians to glimpse their peers’ opinions of supplements and other medications and add their own insights.

It’s free for doctors, and so far 10,000 of them are using SharePractice. Brandeis says the startup also takes care to, for each new treatment added to the platform, research what evidence is out there about it so that the doctors’ opinions are tempered by research and factual information about the treatments’ success. The blend makes for something that’s valuable to use in real me. Doctors also are able to link up their social media profile in order to follow recommendations by peers they know and trust.

And the health winner, Kuveda, which provides personalized cancer therapeutics, also has a strong social component to its SaaS platform. Kuveda cuts down on the time oncologists spend analyzing their patients’ cancers while improving outcomes. As oncologists do this, they get tools to share with other oncologists. Founder Chuck Gershman says the sharing aspect is almost identical to what SharePractice is doing, only his product is specific to cancer cases.

Revolutionizing farming, especially through water-related technologies

California, particularly the Bay Area, would seem a likely place to see farming-related solutions. Not only is California, by far, the largest produce producer in the United States but the state also has endured severe water shortages that threaten agricultural practices.

To help farmers, startup Apitronics enables them to irrigate their fields with precision. In the U.S., almost 80 percent of farmers irrigate by look and feel, guessing about the water usage. Instead, Apitronics has a hardware-software solution that includes digital soil maps and a weather station as well as an app to keep track of it all.

There are other soil probes out in the marketplace that allow farmers to use 20 percent less water, but adoption of them is really low. Apitronics’ differentiator is price and the comprehensive nature of its system, according to the startup’s team, which is heavy on engineering talent.

Also in energy, Aqua Gardens Family Farm is a Northern California aquaponics farm that’s using 90 percent less water to grow crops—its first being lettuce. The water in an aquaponic system is a living organism that emanates from a fish tank and is perpetually cycling through. The fish provide nitrates so that Aqua Gardens does not have to add any chemicals and pesticides to its crops. Plus, the lettuce stays fresh for far longer, about three weeks.

Kirk Miller, vice president of strategy and development, says his farm will be able to produce 4 million heads of lettuce annually. The company is, so far, selling directly to chefs primarily and has distributed 20,00 units of lettuce.

“Eighty percent of every restaurant we’ve talked into by just showing them the lettuce and giving them a sample we’ve sold them,” he says. “We’re creating a whole new standard of produce.”

Solutions to boost electric vehicle adoption

Two of the startups in the crop of cities and transportation startups are in the electric car space and specifically working to make the charging aspect simpler and more accessible.

Green Dot has developed a hands-free charging station for the vehicles that seamlessly connects the car to the power supply. That means the driver can hook up the car and walk away. The Bay Area startup has a prototype and is working with cities on testing it.

Meanwhile, cities and transportation winner EverCharge has created an EV charging system for condos and other multi-unit dwellings. One of the obstacles to widespread consumer adoption of electric cars in the U.S. is this lack of charging stations in cities—especially in big buildings where a substantial number of city residents live. EverCharge is currently in 50 buildings.

Though not directly making electric vehicles or charging stations, EnZinc, in the energy category, has come up with a whole new battery—made out of zinc in a sponge form. One of the major usages for the zinc batteries is in electric cars. Compared to the lithium ion batteries that car makers like Tesla employ now, EnZinc’s batteries are nontoxic, cost almost half the price and don’t carry the risk of overheating. Tesla’s, on the other hand, requires a specialized cooling system so it does not overheat.

EnZinc’s technology capitalizes on work by the U.S. Navy around zinc, the eighth most used material on the planet.

Cofounder Michael Burz says, with electric cars, his team thought that “the ethos of the battery should match the ethos of the electric car,” which his startup’s battery does.

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…