Friday the 13th turned out to be a lucky day in New Orleans for two groups of young scientific types, one from Stanford and the other from Tulane.
The former was awarded $50,000 in seed money for a new way to treat kidney stones, while the latter won $20,000 for its Midas-like invention that promises to turn algae into crude oil.
Winner of the 2012 Tulane Business Plan Competition was Calcula, a startup created by a team of Californians that is patenting a way to use hydrodilation (infusing water into the renal system) as a non-surgical way to flush out kidney stones. And winner of the 2012 Domain Companies New Orleans Entrepreneur Challenge was ReactWell, a fledgling local company that plans to use geothermal energy to convert biomass (read: algae grown in ponds) into synthetic oil.
Both awards were announced Friday night at a Tulane Entrepreneurs Association gala at the Audubon Tea Room, after a day-long event at the A.B. Freeman School of Business where half a dozen contenders vied for the cash prizes the new-fashioned way: The Pitch.
Pitch contests have cropped up almost as fast as entrepreneurs in the local landscape. Named for the so-called “elevator pitch,” which denotes a brief summary of a service or product that one could conceivably deliver in the course of an elevator ride, these pitch fests are professional, creative and fast-paced. Basically, the finalists pitch their products, and an audience or panel of judges names a winner virtually on the spot.
Last month, at the third New Orleans Entrepreneur Week , more than $300,000 was allocated to startups whose products range from herbal tea concentrates to online design tools for home solar panels.
If you haven’t been to one, consider it; even for non-technical types like myself, the 30-minute power point-and-poise dramas unfold as compellingly as any Tennessee Williams one-act.
Perhaps the granddaddy of local pitch contests is the Tulane Business Plan Competition, now in its 12th year. In entrepreneurial circles, that’s a ripe old age indeed. For more than a decade, the student-run competition has been giving a hefty chunk of change to students from around the globe who have come up with ideas for innovative new businesses and products.
At Freeman on Friday, the delivery and imaginative thinking of the six finalists proved fascinating. Big drop-down screens showed animated graphics explaining the size of kidney stones or the way iron is needed to create new red blood cells or how carbon particles can attract toxins in ground water. Sophisticated visuals demonstrated need, financials, start-up costs, budgets and the like with enough pie charts and infographics to fill a dozen Banksy graffiti facades.
Each finalist – three in the Business Plan Competition, which is open to students worldwide, and three in the Domain Companies Challenge, which is confined to local-impact companies – had 15 minutes to pitch and 15 minutes to answer questions. The judges keyed in on the business aspects of the pitches, but I found myself more intrigued by the entrepreneurial aspects of the competition.
All six finalists took out-of-the-box thinking into extreme-sport territory.
The young professionals so drawn to New Orleans, and others like them, are brainstorming very creative solutions to fundamental social and medical problems.
Thus, the Calcula team began with the fact that 85 percent of the 1.1 million kidney stone patients who go to the emergency room each year are not candidates for surgery, and tried to come up with a way to treat them with something other than pain killers. They realized that a hydrodilation catheter, which has been around for other uses for decades, might be able to gently enlarge the urethra to allow the stone to fall.
The two creators of SODI-CAN are reworking the jerrycan, a ubiquitous 20-liter container used in most of the developing world to carry water from source to home. By installing a solarized purifier in the can itself, they figure they can clean the water as it’s carried – thus attacking the problem of the 1.1 billion people globally who have access only to contaminated water sources.
EpiQi Sciences, of Brigham young University, is using an FDA-approved drug currently being used for another disease to treat anemia of chronic inflammation (ACI), which affects 30 percent of the population.
New Orleans’ own NanoFex is a new business dedicated to cleaning up contaminated ground, by injecting it with a biodegradable material made from Louisiana sugar cane and shrimp and crab shells, among other things, that washes out the toxins. It already has potential customers and a site-test planned by the end of this year.
ReactWell thinks it has an edge on new biofuels, because its algae-based oil can be funneled directly into the existing refinery system. A 10-acre farm, its founders hypothesize, might produce 67 barrels of synthetic crude oil a day.
Bideo (bid + video) is the world’s first online auction exchange for newsworthy video and photos. Think eBay meets YouTube. If you capture something newsworthy on your camera phone, instead of giving it away to the news (or posting it on social media) you can upload it to Bideo, and then auction it to news outlets that will bid on the exclusive right to publish it.
The pulse running through all of this is creative idealism, if you will. The people pitching hard-core numbers for real businesses have imagined cutting-edge solutions to big issues. They aren’t afraid to look at a problem like fuel shortages or contaminated ground, and brainstorm a way to fix it. And, then, make it work.
New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks wrote a piece last week about this generation’s social entrepreneurs. “Their hip service ethos,” he wrote, “is setting the moral tone for the age.”
But then Brooks went on to say that today’s young idealists aren’t realistic – that is, cynical enough – about how power and politics work. They need a little film noir, he opined, a dose of Raymond Chandler and his inherent cynicism.
I disagree. Judging by the pitch contests I’ve attended, including the Tulane Business Plan Competition on Friday, I think today’s social entrepreneurs know just how the world works, and what it takes to make things happen.
And, to their credit, it hasn’t tempered either their “hip service ethos” or their “moral tone” at all.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie.