UNC student entrepreneurs develop pitch-perfect ventures

William Sweet knows how to stop people fast in their tracks. It’s a skill that UNC-Chapel Hill football fans have witnessed the sophomore offensive tackle display on the field. But when visitors filed into Kenan Stadium’s Blue Zone one November night, they saw him do it a whole new way. For the evening, Sweet traded his regular block, grab and tackle moves for different maneuvers: eye contact, a warm smile, a firm handshake and a compelling business pitch.

Those were the skills that Sweet and more than 200 Carolina students representing 75 entrepreneurial teams put into practice to stop and grab the attention of judges circulating the room during the 4th Annual Carolina Challenge Pitch Party. The event celebrates entrepreneurship at UNC and gives students a chance to network and pitch their venture ideas to a host of pros in the entrepreneurship community.

200 student entrepreneurs gather to pitch ideas

75 student venture teams

140 judges from the business, local government and investment sectors

$2,400 in funding awarded across six top teams

Explore classes on entrepreneurship and innovation, while getting involved in leadership and learning opportunities outside the classroom. Explore UNC courses on innovation and entrepreneurship.

Sweet’s team focused on a technology concept called cold-compression therapy, which combines ice and pressure into a full-length leg sleeve. The team believes such a device could help patients with leg injuries like ACL tears mend from surgery more quickly at home.

“I recently recovered from an ACL surgery, and we want to implement a device for people like me,” said Sweet, who talked about the long recovery process such injuries entail. “This is a huge problem with people being out of work, and we want to get them back to the workplace faster. We want to implement recovery at home: be with your family, be with your kids and recover while doing so.”

Another change that might not have been so overt was a switch in Sweet’s coach. On the field, he follows the lead of head football coach Larry Fedora and offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic. For the pitch party, however, Sweet studied under a different coach: Jim Kitchen, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Kenan-Flagler Business School. In his course Entrepreneurship and Business Planning, Kitchen teaches Sweet and other students the ropes of what it means to be a business self-starter.

“The Pitch Party is UNC’s best student-oriented entrepreneurial event because venture teams get a chance to socialize their ideas, getting invaluable feedback from seasoned business professionals, town and county leaders, and investors,” said Kitchen, who requires his students to participate by developing an idea and honing a pitch to sell it. “This event forces many students out of their comfort zones. If a venture team wants to get funded, they not only need a good idea, but must persuasively and concisely pitch it, and working as a team, must get the support of many potential investors. The atmosphere is electric and invigorating.”  

Cold-compression therapy was just one of a sea of ideas conceived among the student teams, which pitched concepts for everything from a universal online shopping cart (UCart) and an electronic syllabus platform for college students (Syllabye) to a portable product for tick removal (TickTape) and sustainable solutions for ocean farming (CreSEA).

At stake was $2,400 of award funding, which was distributed among the top six teams. However, according to Evie Peña, event organizer and member of the Carolina Challenge Core Team, the rewards of participating run much deeper than financial support.

“Pitch Party is invaluable for student entrepreneurs because it brings together professionals, who have experience with startups and venture capital and can provide advice and mentorship, with students, who have the ideas and the creativity to solve problems,” said Peña. “The greatest thing I’ve learned in my four years on the Carolina Challenge Core Team is how brilliant my peers who are competing are – the students who sit next to me in my business classes, French classes and political science classes. UNC instills creativity in each of us, and seeing that creativity put to work at Pitch Party reshapes the way people see problems and solutions.”

Jim Kitchen, entrepreneur-in-resdience, Kenan-Flagler Business School
“This event forces many students out of their comfort zones. If a venture team wants to get funded, they not only need a good idea, but must persuasively and concisely pitch it, and working as a team, must get the support of many potential investors. The atmosphere is electric and invigorating.”

The Carolina Challenge Pitch Party is part of a comprehensive approach to entrepreneurship education at UNC-Chapel Hill. The University provides a wide range of courses focused on entrepreneurship through the business school’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, the Shuford Program in Entreprenership and many other schools, departments and programs that teach an entrepreneurial mindset and skillset as part of their course offerings, workshops and conferences. The goal is to provide students with a combination of classroom instruction and real-world learning experiences that give them the chance to understand what it means to pursue an idea and turn it into reality. 

A student entrepreneur pitches her idea for the venture Only 252, a platform that connects people from eastern North Carolina.

The lessons learned by UNC students might lead them to start a venture of their own, or it might allow them to apply entrepreneurial skills inside an existing company or non-profit organization. Those skills include creativity, leadership, planning, the ability to take the right risks, building on failures, adapting to change, and working as part of a team. Johnathan Nunez, a student whose venture team won a first-place award for its location-based services app Vinci, sees the value of honing such valuable career skills. “I participated in this competition because I want to develop my pitching skills, as I have an interest in sales or recruiting as a profession,” Nunez said.

But, like many of the student entrepreneurs on competing at the pitch party, Nunez, who is majoring in management and society and earning a minor in entrepreneurship through the Shuford Program, sees the possibility for something even bigger down the road – the potential to stake out and start his own business. 

“I also have some business ideas that I would like to pursue eventually,” Nunez explained, “and competitions like this one allow me to experience firsthand the speed bumps of entrepreneurship and the processes by which a startup acquires funding and networks.”

Winning student venture teams

Vinci: First place (Beta Stage)

A mobile app and website that uses location-based services that allow people to connect to each other in real time.

cold compression therapy: first place (idea stage)

The concept for cold-compression therapeutic device to promote post-surgery recovery from injuries like ACL tears.

nextup music: second place (beta stage)

A music app that gives everyone the power to digitally democratize the music experience by connecting and queuing music with the people around them

Showcase: Second Place (Idea Stage)

A venture that is working to create a networked marketplace for creators, recruiters and content consumers.

CreSEA: Third place (beta stage)

Sustainable ocean farming via macro-algae that can be used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, while achieving food security and marine conservation.

Lunch-Box-To-Go: Third Place (Idea Stage)

An online retail/food service site that allows parents to order dietary-specific food for their children.