(Photo courtesy of Zoi Ellis)
Tacos, beer and business opportunities. Just another night at City Point.
The Downtown Brooklyn venue played host to the latest Make It In Brooklyn pitch competition on Tuesday evening. This installment of the series featured five women entrepreneurs, who vied for a prize of $5,000 in cash and $15,000 in design and branding services from creative agency Berlin Cameron.
A panel of five businesswomen judged the pitches. The judges included Jennifer DaSilva, president of Berlin Cameron; Alessandra Henderson, VP of network at Human Ventures; Valerie Biberaj, director of Kate Spade & Company Foundation; Yao Huang, founder of The Hatchery; and Ishveen Anand, CEO and founder of OpenSponsorship. Dee Poku-Spalding, the founder of the Other Festival, which showcases the work of women in business and creative fields, emceed the event.
The five entrepreneurs who participated in the pitch contest represented a broad range of industries and applications, from health to law enforcement training. Though all their companies were early stage, they were in different phases of development as well: some were beta testing their products, while others’ products were still in the concept phase. So revenue and viability were big themes during the judges’ question-and-answer periods. Huang, in particular, asked probing and occasionally skeptical questions.
But it was all tough love, according to DaSilva, who presented feedback on each pitch and announced the winner.
“We thought you were all fabulous,” she said. “It was a very, very close decision. One judge made a last-minute shift.”
At the end of the evening, the judges named Sabrina Varanelli, the CEO and founder of neMedIO, the winner of the pitch contest. Alice Formwalt, the cofounder and chief product officer of Street Smarts VR, took the runner-up slot. (The runner-up award was informal, since the contest only designated a prize for the winner.)
Here’s more on Varanelli and Formwalt’s pitches, as well as those of the other three finalists.
The winner: neMedIO
As she related in her pitch, Varanelli, a robotics engineer, got the idea for her company after having worked on the development of robotic medical devices, both at Honeybee Robotics and as a consultant. One big issue for companies seeking to build new medical devices: getting FDA approval is a slog. Why?
According to Varanelli, often companies have to scrap their initial products, because the FDA doesn’t accept devices unless they have “medical-grade” components — in other words, they can’t use off-the-shelf parts. That do-over process, she said, often ends up killing startups. Varanelli’s company, neMedIO, seeks to make the process easier for those companies by providing software and hardware toolkits for development.
The idea is that neMedIO’s library would consist of approved, industry-compliant parts that would eliminate the need for companies to scrap their initial designs. NeMedIO also would provide a validation kit for companies to demonstrate compliance with FDA regulations once they begin the process to gain approval from the agency. But it’s the focus on product development, Varanelli said in her pitch, that sets neMedIo apart in its field.
“Many of our competitors only think about the quality management side and forget about the engineering,” she said.
The runner-up: Street Smarts VR
It’s not often that a pitch deck contains a photo collage of headlines involving Eric Garner and Michael Brown. But as she explained in her pitch, Alice Formwalt believes her company, Street Smarts VR, could reduce fatalities in police encounters through better training.
According to Formwalt, who has a background in cognitive science, her company’s product addresses major shortcomings of current police training: it doesn’t happen on a regular basis, and often, the training scenarios aren’t realistic enough. Most significant, she said, they don’t always address the critical moment of whether or not to shoot.
Street Smarts VR, by contrast, uses virtual-reality technology to present immersive scenarios based upon real-life incidents. The company plans to supply VR headsets to police departments, who would buy subscriptions to the company’s content, so that officers can have ongoing access to training material. Street Smarts VR is currently testing its product with the Darien, Connecticut, police department.
One question raised by the judges loomed large, however: what about the notion of racial bias as a factor in police shootings? Could VR actually solve that? For now, Formwalt replied, Street Smarts VR doesn’t directly address implicit bias. But preparing police officers for the split-second, shoot-or-don’t-shoot moment on a repeated basis, she said, could help officers to focus on the procedure in that scenario rather than fall back upon their biases.
“More exposure can help them deal,” she said.
The apartment matchmaker: BunkUp
Finding an apartment — and sane roommates to split the rent — is an age-old pain point in New York City. With her company, BunkUp, Margarite Halaris is aiming to ease the burden.
BunkUp makes an app that’s essentially a matchmaking tool for people looking for roommates: they can enter preferences such as age and location. The app requires a login with Facebook, as an initial vetting device. The Facebook connection also allows users to see if they have friends in common with others on the app, so that they can ferret out more details about their would-be roommates.
“We’re hoping to avoid matching quote-unquote strangers,” Halaris said.
Once prospective roommates are matched, the app also helps them find apartments that match their preferences. It’s essentially a lead generation service for real estate brokers, and indeed, that’s how Halaris plans for BunkUp to make money. The company, Halaris said, has inked partnerships with the real estate firm Keller Williams and the moving referral service Unpakt. Right now, the company operates in the New York City area; it plans to launch in Chicago and San Francisco next year.
The multicultural makeup maven: Miah Beauty
For Teniola Adejuwon, beauty products aren’t just skin deep; they can be a catalyst for empowerment. That was the theme of her pitch for Miah Beauty, which seeks to develop beauty products for women of all hues.
Miah Beauty started out as Podozi, a Nigerian company that ran an online shop for cosmetics directed at African women. The company participated in 500 Startups and was chosen by Fast Company earlier this year as one of the most innovative companies in Africa. But there was one big problem, Adejuwon said: the brands it stocked often didn’t have many products geared toward women of color.
“None of those brands had an interest in solving this problem,” Adejuwon said.
It’s an ongoing issue in the industry, and one that celebrities such as Iman, Queen Latifah and Rihanna have sought to fix. Miah Beauty’s approach: a customer uploads her photo, and the company presents custom recommendations for its in-house products that complement her complexion and features. Miah’s products are still in development, but for now, Adejuwon said, the company plans to sell them online. It will also offer a subscription rate (akin to Sam’s Club) in which members get reduced prices on Miah’s products.
The virtual GYN expert: Ovee
Plenty of women get squeamish about visiting the gynecologist — just check out all those recent headlines about redesigning the speculum — so much so that many of them put it off altogether. Jane Mitchell and Courtney Snavely’s company, Ovee, is developing an app that may help make that doctor’s visit a little less intimidating for young women who have never visited.
Mitchell and Snavely, both graduates of the Parsons School of Design’s master’s program in design and technology, developed Ovee while participating in the Publicis Health Digital Health AR Startup Bootcamp, held in conjunction with NYC Media Lab. Ovee’s app includes a chatbot with which users can ask questions about their reproductive health and find a doctor. It also functions as an interactive pamphlet, with augmented reality capabilities, which allows users to learn more about select reproductive health topics at their own pace in a comfortable setting.
“Instead of having to carry a giant ‘I have chlamydia’ pamphlet on the subway, you can discreetly have that information on your phone,” said Snavely. “No one has to know.”