Thursday night in a velvet-curtained, macabre-chic bar, startup Propel won the winter Make It in BK pitch competition.
“Really hard, really tough we think they’re all great, we’d like to give money to all of them but it was a unanimous decision in the end that Propel is the winner,” judge D.K. Smith said, awarding the $5,000 prize. “They have a pretty good business model, they already have traction … In the end we had to make some objective decisions on what we saw and what we heard.”
The Make It in BK pitch competition is a quarterly startup competition put on by the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, a community economic growth organization funded in part by the city. The group partners with corporate sponsors, in this case J.P. Morgan Chase and Cowrkrs, to offer a $5,000 cash prize and a free month of coworking for the winner. It’s essentially a miniature Shark Tank for Brooklyn startups. According to the president of the partnership, more than 70 startups applied to be in this season’s competition, from which five were chosen. The group assembles a team of the top local tech talent to be judges.
— UnTabooed (@UnTabooed) December 2, 2016
This season’s winner, Propel, is a social impact startup building apps for people on food stamps. The company’s first app is called Fresh EBT. It allows users to check their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) balance and keep track of their spending habits in the same way some personal finance apps, like Mint, work for people’s checking accounts.
“It’s humbling to be in front of these types of judges who are really accomplished,” cofounder Jimmy Chen said after the competition. “It’s also humbling to be with these competitors. It’s an honor to be chosen.”
Chen’s company has been around since August of 2014. It was born out of Blue Ridge Labs, a civic tech incubator located in Cobble Hill that is part of the Robin Hood Foundation. The company has had success in other pitch competitions up and down the East Coast, as well as in Brooklyn.
Most recently Chen was a product manager at Facebook. He left in 2014 to join the incubator and to try to make something, using what he’d learned in Silicon Valley, to help people in a more tangible way.
“I think it comes from a belief that technology has a lot of potential to create social change,” he said. “We’ve seen the power of tech when applied to companies like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. I grew up in a low income family. We were always very loving and very supportive but we sometimes had trouble putting food on the table. I ended up getting a full ride to Stanford. I then had a kind of traditional Silicon Valley career. I worked for LinkedIn out of college then got a job at Facebook running a product team and, I think in some ways, Propel is become full circle and using some of the skills I gained in Silicon Valley to solve some of the problems I feel very strongly about.”
The company’s next product is called easyfoodstamps.com, an app that makes the process of applying for food stamps considerably easier. It’s still in beta, but you can try a demo here.
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