From electric boat motors to a wireless phone charger that can heat up a cup of coffee, the innovating, creating and funding hasn’t stopped — even if the in-person meetings have.
Amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, pitch competitions and investment fairs have gone virtual, like just about everything else these days. Instead of handshakes and tables set up in an event hall, the tech startup scene is turning to Zoom to make their deals.
Flux Marine, a Boston-based startup that is working on the electric motors, and Inductive Intelligence, the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based company making smart inductive technology, like the phone charger, presented their ideas Tuesday in the first virtual AlphaLab Gear Hardware Cup.
The competition, which featured 11 finalists from all over the world, is intended to assist early stage hardware startups to secure funding. The $50,000 prize money comes from sponsors, including Carnegie Mellon University’s Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship, Solidworks, Arrow and Analog Devices, Bosch and Banner Witcoff.
In its sixth year, the competition has been held at the AlphaLab Hardware Gear headquarters in East Liberty, the Ace Hotel and the Union Project.
Virtually, the setup was the same: The entrepreneurs had a few minutes to pitch their idea and then a few minutes of answering questions from a panel of judges.
Melissa Withers, a judge for the past four competitions, even had the same set of questions ready to go: Why now? Why this? Why you?
“I think what has changed is certainly the ‘why now,’ ” said Ms. Withers, who is based in Boston and is co-founder and managing partner of investment firm RevUp Capital.
“You, the founder, have to make sure your story is contextualized in a way that helps me understand how you’re going to make it through not just the pandemic — it’s not just the pandemic anymore — it’s about the economic recession that’s going with the pandemic,” Ms. Withers said.
Leaning into the “why now” question, BlastPoint, an East Liberty-based startup, quickly adapted its pitch to reflect what was going on with COVID-19 — and how its product could help.
BlastPoint, which helps businesses harness the power of big data, originally had a pitch that focused on things such as who is going to buy the next electric car.
In the wake of the pandemic, it switched the focus to how its technology could be used to look at who is paying their bills and who is not likely to pay in the future.
“There are a lot of things that seemed really important not too long ago and they seem a lot less important now,” said Alison Alvarez, CEO and co-founder. “I think it’s really helped us to be able to tell that story to investors.”
BlastPoint is one of about 30 companies presenting their product at the first virtual AI and Robotics Venture Fair, hosted by Innovation Works and Carnegie Mellon University. The fair works with the Hardware Cup, which is hosted by AlphaLab Gear, one of Innovation Work’s startup accelerator programs.
To prepare, startup founders created a digital presentation that investors had 72 hours to view. If they were interested, the investors could schedule time for individual meetings.
Kevin Dowling, CEO of Shadyside-based Kaarta, which produces mobile 3D scan technology, said he would miss the unexpected questions potential investors asked as he pitched his product.
Not being able to immediately answer investors question and clear up any confusion makes the process less efficient, he said.
“What worries me is that if someone forms a conclusion — ‘Oh, this is never going to work’ — then I have no way of responding to that,” Mr. Dowling said.
“I am very used to having an audience. Even a tough audience is great to be able to react to,” he said. “And if you don’t have that feedback, it feels very surreal. It feels like I’m talking to myself.”
Going virtual could also have some upsides.
Judges and investors have fewer distractions sitting at home than in a crowded reception hall, Ms. Withers said.
Entrepreneurs could worry less about the theatrics of their performance and keeping the nerves out of their voice, said Rich Lunak, president and CEO of Innovation Works.
And, more investors could be willing to put in the time if they don’t have to travel.
In past years, about 200 investors registered for the venture fair and about 150 would show up. This year, more than 385 registered.
On Wednesday, about 160 investors tuned in to an almost three-hour webinar to watch pitches, but the organizers expect even more investors to view the presentations on their own over the next few days.
Missing out on fairs and networking events is going to disproportionately affect those founders who are already vulnerable, Ms. Withers said. First-time founders, founders of color, female founders and founders who live outside of the traditional markets can’t rely on existing networks of support, she said.
“Those that will be affected the fastest are the ones that were most vulnerable to begin with,” Ms. Withers said. “What I’m worried about is a whole generation of entrepreneurs that we’ve sort of begun to call out of the shadows.”
At this year’s Hardware Cup, Ms. Withers asked entrepreneurs what really sets them apart from their competitors, what they would “bring to the party” and the “secret sauce that’s going to allow you to go a little further than those who came before you.”
JuneBrain Inc., a Rockville, Md.-based startup, took home the grand prize from Tuesday’s competition. The company is developing a wearable retinal-imaging device that monitors disease activity in multiple sclerosis patients.
Second place went to Creation Energy, a Nigeria-based startup that is working to bring power to rural communities. Third place went to Altis Biosystems, a startup in Chapel Hill, N.C., that has a stem cell platform that creates human intestinal tissue.