Accelerators / COVID-19 / Events / Pitches / Startups

How 5 Baltimore startup pitch nights pivoted to virtual

COVID-19 paused live pitches, but accelerator cohorts are still looking to close out strong. We checked in with entrepreneurship leaders at Johns Hopkins, MICA, Loyola UMB and University of Baltimore for lessons on the switch to virtual demo days.

MICA's Up/Start cohort pitched via Zoom. (Courtesy image)
Updated at 7:15 p.m., 4/27/20.
If it weren’t for the pandemic, we’d all be going to events every night right about now.

For Baltimore’s entrepreneurial community, April typically brings a chance to meet blossoming founders with a busy calendar of demo days and community events, many of which coincide with the end of the semester at the universities that sponsor business-building programs. The broad event cancellations came during a particularly busy season.

But for organizers who preach the need to be willing to pivot, that isn’t keeping accelerator programs from ending with a chance to win funding and meet the community: Demo days are going virtual.

Soon after stay-at-home orders came down in mid-March, Pava LaPere, cofounder of university entrepreneurship network Innov8MD, organized a call where university entrepreneurship directors from around the region shared ideas and tech tools. The conversation showed that it required a lot more than taking an event to Zoom. For one, approaches varied between keeping a live event and more asynchronous approaches.

And the benefits of an accelerator program go beyond a big check, which means redesigning a demo day so that it could still do justice to the work that founders put in and the connections they might make. Here are a few key lessons that local organizers have honed in on in the past few weeks:

Beyond a night

Johns Hopkins’ FastForward U accelerator is split into a pair of programs: “Spark” for idea-stage student ventures, and “Fuel” for businesses that have moved further along. The plan was for them all to be pitching together at a single night. That turned into pitching at a single site, with the timetable extended over the last two weeks of April.

Students from the teams pre-recorded pitches using Loom, a shareable video platform. Then they were posted on the FFU website on April 15. They still got feedback from judges, and the winners will receive the same amount in cash prizes.

Along with a prolonged period of sharing the pitches, they’re also announcing the winners in staggered fashion, with one from each program unveiled over the last two weeks. And on the website announcing the winners, there’s a form to follow up with the companies.

Student Program Manager Kevin Carter, who runs the accelerator alongside LaPere, said the video offers a way for students to have an added piece of collateral to share about their company in video form. They were also able to sign on judges who were alums who otherwise may not have been able to attend.

Among the cohort members, the organizers saw founders who worked just as hard as any other time. It also created a unique bonding experience that won’t soon be forgotten.

“I don’t think anyone is going forget what they were doing during this moment,” he said.

Let the people vote

After spending March working with entrepreneurial community mentors, the eight student and recent alumni teams of creative entrepreneurs in MICA’s Up/Start Venture CompetitionĀ pitched judges via Zoom to decide who would get $100,000 in available earnings.

Announced on Monday, the top two winners include:

  • Makers for Humankind —Ā Mikea Hugley’sĀ customizable shoes for people who are always on their feet won $29,750.
  • Small Island Clothing —Ā Sara Stanton’s genderless clothing company, which designs for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, won $29,000.

But they still posted the pitches online, and even looked to keep a bit of the community interaction a demo day would offer: Pitches were posted to select the winner of the people’s choice award, with voting open for 10 days. Blackives, a consulting firm founded by Deyane Moses that seeks to close the racial inequality gap in art and design, won the $5,000 prize.

With the public vote that’s available online, MICA Assistant Director for Entrepreneurship Stephanie Chin said there’s a chance for pitches to be seen more widely in the campus community, and beyond.

“In some ways the online voting has really opened up our program and brought more awareness of the power of creative entrepreneurship, which is nice,” she said.

When it comes to the tools that powered the switch, Chin said StartupTree has been a particularly useful platform for tracking the ventures and mentors.

Peer review now, community demo later

For Loyola University Maryland’s inaugural Baltipreneurs accelerator, the judging came from within the cohort itself. The first cohort of the program for ventures from the university and wider Baltimore community completed the instruction portion prior to the shift.

They were planning a demo day to close it out, but instead shifted to video pitches, said Loyola Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Director Wendy Bolger. However, the process of determining a winner remained the same as planned: Inspired by a peer review model developed by Village Capital, the cohort members are rating each other to determine the winner.

“We wanted to build that in to create that sense of collegiality and the collective element,” she said. It also meant that the winner wouldn’t be named based on an event.

But Bolger said introducing the founders to the community was also key to the program, and they are hoping to be able to hold an event later in the year that could bring cross-cohort connections.

“The thing that I like about fall or late summer is that we’ll be recruiting for the next cohort of Balitpreneurs, so i think it will be fun to have an opportunity for the new cohort to see the folks that went before them,” Bolger said.

Be flexible

Pitch events are a valuable time to present a venture, get feedback and make connections. But during a pandemic, the reality is that everyone has a lot going on. So organizers took some opportunities to create more flexibility amid the transitions and added responsibilities during remote work.

For the University of Maryland, Baltimore, theĀ annual Grid Pitch is offering founders with ventures that grew out of the UMB community the chance to submit pitches that are recorded ahead of time. The platform VoiceThread is even forgiving of mistakes.

“We felt that doing something where they could post a pre-recorded piece was a little bit more supportive of the rest of the issues that they’re going through right now,” saidĀ Jim Kucher, program director for UMB’s M.S. in Health and Social Innovation and senior lecturer at The University of Maryland Graduate School. “This particular platform allows for narrated PowerPoint slides but you can edit your comments slide by slide. If you mess up on slide two or slide four, you don’t have to go back to the beginning.”

Another key element of the live event is the feedback an entrepreneur might receive from someone they meet by chance that night. So the videos will be posted this week on The Grid’s website, with a chance for folks to leave feedback. It highlights the ways that such events help participants move forward, beyond winning some funding.

“It’s never been a competition,” Kucher said. “It’s a showcase.”

Going live

At the University of Baltimore, the thought of canceling the Rise to the Challenge Pitch Competition didn’t even cross the minds of organizers, said UB Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation Director Henry Mortimer. But given that the mid-semester shift brought a new mode for completing classes and that many of the university’s students also maintain jobs alongside their studies, they decided that the competition could come after classes this year. It will now be held on June 10 at 5:30 p.m., which falls after the conclusion of the semester.

UB already had tech-enabled tools to help founders, such as the Baltimore-built platform PitchCreator. And they’re maintaining tech community mentors. For the event, Mortimer is planning for ways to keep the live crowd favorite voting in place, and allow attendees to follow up with students. He said that plenty of connections have happened over the years for founders, even if they didn’t win funding.

“We want to recreate the live event as close to what it normally is as possible, he said.

Companies: Johns Hopkins University / Loyola University Maryland / Maryland Institute College of Art / University of Baltimore
Series: Coronavirus

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