Carolina Challenge

Wednesday night I spent judging the semi-finals of the Carolina Challenge. The Carolina Challenge is a startup competition hosted by the Kenan-Flagler Business School and pulls teams from the entire UNC community.
The startups are broken into two groups — commercial and social. I judged three teams from the social side — startups with a strong social mission. As judges, we reviewed the startups’ business plans beforehand and listened to their 15-minute pitch followed with a short Q&A session.

Here are the startups with my quick and dirty analysis.

  • CREW — Proposal to offer an afterschool crew program to an underserved Durham public high school. Noble idea but the logistics, upfront costs, and the student team’s light experience on the requisite operations.
  • Optimal Learning — Startup that merges a biofeedback mouse with software to lessen test taking anxiety for teenagers. More promising and business plan was well thought out. Biggest risk is startup run as a research project versus business.
  • Macedonian eLearning Center — Online website / community to teach the Macedonian language. Lots of passion and interest by the founders but fundamentally challenging because the potential market is very small.
  • Peace Umbrellas — Startup selling umbrellas painted with a peace sign and sunflower. Although the management team come across as some quirky folks, I can see success of this company succeeding. Founders seem gritty enough to tough out the hardships of starting a company, see their product and business evolve, and build a strong genuine and unique brand over time … over a long time. Bit reminiscent of the folksy roots of Ben & Jerry’s or Burt’s Bees. But, there are a lot of ifs there.

After all the votes were tallied, Optimal Learning and CREW moved onto the next round. We’ll see where it goes it from here. In the end, a startup’s success (especially non VC-backed ones) is very dependent on the drive and persistence of its founder(s). I suspect that if any of these startups go anywhere then persistence will be the reason.

The finals for the competition are April 19th with prizes of $15,000 for the best commercial and social venture. As a past supporter of Dukakis and Mondale, I have a unfortunate history of always backing the wrong horse. Hopefully, this time it’ll be different.