Sell me on it: What the pitch competition philosophy can do for Charlottesville’s startup scene

A pitch competition during the 2013 Tom Tom Founder's Festival. Photo: Darkfire Designs A pitch competition during the 2013 Tom Tom Founder’s Festival. Photo: Darkfire Designs

Belmont mini-market transformed into a catering hub. A company that opens up the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to vacationers through a network of homestay houses. An eyewear line featuring glasses with removable lenses and exchangeable frames.

These are some of the business ideas born in Charlottesville that debuted as part of a pitch competition, where a crowd of locals—students, average citizens, business experts—voted to steer a pot of funds to one of multiple possible projects.

It’s far from the only way to finance a startup, but it’s an increasingly popular one. Next month’s third annual Tom Tom Founder’s Festival, a citywide smorgasbord of ideas, art, and innovation running from April 9 through 13, will kick off with a big community pitch night, and already dozens of hungry entrepreneurs have applied to be a part of it.

“For a lot of startup businesses that are kind of scrappy and trying to build momentum behind their idea, the first step is having the community behind them,” said Tom Tom founder Paul Beyer. “It’s a way to get the message out and get people invested in your idea early on, get them believing in you. It’s a trend we’re seeing nationwide.”

And it might be tempting to dismiss the idea of a business venture born from a well-polished speech and a group vote as a fad. But the underlying philosophy—equal parts kumbaya spirit and cutthroat competition—is echoed in other corners of Charlottesville’s startup scene, and those who spend a lot of time thinking about how to move the needle on innovation in the city say that’s a good thing.

The Internet has dramatically changed the way people approach new business ideas, said Carolyn Zelikow, who is in charge of marketing for Tom Tom.

“It used to be if you wanted money, you went to the bank, or you went to your state government, or the rich guy with the house on the hill,” she said. “But now, you can go to your friends, and the people who care about the same things you do, and you can make things happen.”

But there’s a tendency to get stuck on one end or the other of the startup spectrum, said Beyer: Are you going the Kickstarter route, or are you lounging in cigar bars with venture capitalists?

Beyer said the answer should be both. Pitch competitions, like the rest of Tom Tom’s developing schedule of talks with startup founders and investors, highlight the fact that entrepreneurial success is far from one-dimensional—and that Charlottesville is becoming an increasingly good place to prime the pump.

“There has to be money coursing through an economy, and people willing to take chances and invest in businesses,” he said. “But there’s also a lean startup movement, and this idea that people can tap their friends, tap their family, scrape together a business regardless of your background and your race, and make something. And Charlottesville is a hospitable place for that.”

Mark Crowell, head of UVA Innovation, the nonprofit foundation responsible for the University’s licensing and ventures, said the University has made a conscious effort in the last decade to transform itself to reflect that philosophy.

“If you look today, much of what we’re doing is creating venues and opportunities in all kinds of settings where these ideas surface and get evaluated and pounded,” Crowell said, whether it’s in undergraduate classrooms, entrepreneurship competitions, or Darden’s iLab, a startup incubator that accepts applications from UVA students and the wider community. “Suggestions are made, concepts further developed, and if we’re lucky, some funding arises so we can advance that early-stage idea.”

The city owes a lot of its image as an idea town to UVA. But storied research institutions like it have not always been the engines of innovation you might expect them to be, said Crowell. For a long time, the process for turning a researcher’s good idea into a marketable, usable product or company was linear and reactive, he said: wait for a scientist to speak up, file a patent, and hope somebody comes along to invest.

But in the last decade, UVA, like other schools, has tried to change the culture around the development of ideas in a fundamental way, infusing the academic experience with a mix of support and rigorous examination of potential.

Getting there has meant expanding the definition of success, particularly for faculty, he said. In the past, to survive in academia, you had to do two things: publish and bring in grants. If you cling to that idea, you might see efforts to get faculty to patent findings and pursue investment for startups as a distraction.

“We’re trying to say, ‘It’s all good,’” said Crowell. But it’s working. “When you look at the number of inventions per $10 million of research funds, UVA has one of the highest [invention] disclosure rates for our research volume. The level of activity is almost hyper.”

Can the city as a whole become a productive primordial soup where big ideas can evolve? Beyer said time will tell. “But there’s a building momentum,” he said. “People are taking it as something that’s essential to the Charlottesville narrative.”

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