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MIT Elevator Pitch Contest Takes Startup Salesmanship to New Level

Opinion

Xconomy Boston — 

How does $300,000 an hour sound? Walking away with $5,000 for his 60-second pitch, the winner of Thursday night’s MIT $100K Elevator Pitch Contest (EPC), Rouzbeh Shahsavari, seemed pretty excited about it. His idea? Nanoengineered concrete that is twice as strong, cuts CO2 emissions in half, and is dramatically cheaper than typical concrete.

The EPC is the first of three contests that comprise the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. It will be followed by the Executive Summary Contest and the Business Plan Contest. Now in its third year, the EPC is growing at an incredible rate. With over 350 registrations, we had more submissions this year than in the previous two years combined. As for its capacity to produce innovative ideas, just ask Riccardo Signorelli, the winner of last year’s EPC. Last week the Department of Energy awarded his company, Cambridge, MA-based FastCAP Systems, a $5.3 million grant to develop nanotechnology-enhanced batteries.

As an organizer of this year’s EPC, the experience has been pretty incredible. I distinctly remember how much energy I felt in the room during our kickoff meeting, and things seemed to take off from there. I was repeatedly amazed at the amount of work and energy that my peers put into organizing the events. All of that work finally came together at the finale show Thursday night (for a taste of that energy, see the crowd shot below and the small photo gallery at the end of this post).

The finale really does have a lot theatrics to it. With ”Space” as this year’s theme, the emcees were dressed as astronauts against the background of a giant spaceship made out of PVC pipe (This is MIT after all, what else would you expect?). Audience members clapped thunder-sticks together and shouted “3, 2, 1, Liftoff!” before each presentation. In addition to the pitches, the show featured an interview with the winner of last year’s BPC, Waseem Daher. When asked about the interview experience, he said: “Being a speaker was a lot of fun—it was definitely strange being on the ‘other side’ so soon, because I definitely still see myself in the shoes of the participants…taking a bold new idea—in our case, rebootless software updates—and making the case for it to everyone who is willing to listen (and some who aren’t).”

ElevatorPitchContestcrowdThe format of the event kept the excitement level pretty high as well. The top 10 finalists from each of six tracks (Energy, Life Science, Development, Mobile, Web/IT, and Products & Services) were announced before hand and asked to be in attendance. Of those 60, the top 2 from each track would then deliver their elevator pitch to the audience and judges. However, the finalists didn’t know who they were until their name was announced and they were called down to give their pitch then and there.

During the preliminary rounds I was mainly out front at the registration desk, so I didn’t get a chance to preview many of the pitches. Seeing them at the finale, I was astounded by the diverse ideas that the participants came up with—and I wasn’t the only one.

Judge Maria Cirino, founder and managing director of .406 Ventures noted, “The caliber of the pitches was excellent. The pitches were well-crafted and well-delivered… fully thought-out. Some of these ideas definitely have a chance of getting funded.”

Judge Tim Rowe, founder and CEO of Cambridge Innovation Center and Venture Partner at New Atlantic Ventures, took it one step further: “We were blown away by the quality of the pitches across the board. This is an extremely creative group and they each made a very compelling case.” When asked if he thought the winner has a chance of getting funded, his answer was, “I was just speaking to him about exactly that.”

Here were the people who walked away with a little extra cash in their pockets last night:

Grand Prize Winner ($5,000):
Rouzbeh Shahsavari, Energy Track
School: MIT PhD
Company name: n/a
Idea: Nanoengineered concrete
Self description: We have been able to develop a concrete nanostructure that not only cuts carbon dioxide by half but also it is twice as strong as conventional concrete.

Runner up ($2,000 + $1,000 audience choice award):
Laura Paulsen, Products & Services Track
School: Johns Hopkins University
Company name: Hydrangle Systems
Idea: Prostate cancer treatment device (The Apex)
Self description: The Apex is a novel biomedical device that maintains patient potency while undergoing prostate cancer cryoablation treatment.

Runner up ($2,000):
Dean Berlin, Life Sciences Track
School: MIT Sloan
Company name: Calinix
Idea: Drug screening solution
Self description: Calinix provides novel drug screening solutions. The screening assay stage of pharma development could be shortened using Calinix’s lower-cost, high-throughput systems.

Overall, it was a really exciting event to be a part of, and I can’t wait to see all the great ideas that will be put forth in the upcoming Executive Summary Contest and Business Plan Contest.

Here are some more photos. Click on any image to make it bigger and to see full captions.

ElevatorPitchContestcrew ElevatorPitchContestjudges ElevatorPitchContestrunnerup ElevatorPitchContestGrandPrize