Phoenix, Tucson Startups Win First Round of the Challenge Cup at The Newton in Phoenix

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Two startups from Phoenix and one from Tucson will advance to the next round of the Challenge Cup, after winning the first round during a rapid-fire pitch competition Saturday, November 14, at The Newton in Phoenix.

The event drew 15 startups from across the state, each vying for one of three places in the winner's circle. At the end of the two-hour tournament, and after a 20-minute deliberation, three startups — CODE Technology, AZ Vision and Hearing, and NoteBowl — were selected to advance to the next round, announced by City of Phoenix Vice Mayor Daniel Valenzuela. Valenzuela was not a judge, though he did deliver a five-minute speech praising the collaboration of the city and the viability of the startups that have come out of it. No prizes were awarded, but each company will move on to regionals, held in San Francisco on January 28. Winning founders didn't leave totally empty handed, though. Each walked away with a golden goblet that housed a small succulent, a physical stand-in for the prize of future attendance.

Though those three were the judges' favorites, the other locally grown and operated businesses offered unique solutions to problems — or, at the very least, were a cool, marketable, new concept. Tipsy, an app available for both iPhone and Android, allows users to skip lines and trendy nightclubs (the company counts Maya in Scottsdale among its venue partners), while owners benefit from aggregated user data, allowing for targeted marketing. Delighted By: The Original Dessert Hummus was born in a kitchen before expanding to the farmer's market circuit, where they routinely sell out of their chickpea-and-tahini based "dessert" products in flavors like cookie dough and brownie-battered hummus. Bidology created the app version of Angie's List for a highly competitive consumer-driven marketplace that has relies on a digital presence. The Jimmy Club is a monthly condom subscription company with a conscience: Their goal is to win a bid for government funding in order to distribute birth control to lower-income populations while still shipping condom care packages to paying subscribers. 

Rounding out the competition were Primary Book Club, Maingo, TeleScrypts, Giostar, Max on Snax, Adora, ZombieBox, and her.

There were a lot of apps, a lot of subscriptions, and no shortage of passion from each person who pitched — especially the winners.

Danna Evans, creator of AZ Vision and Hearing, didn't shy away from the anxieties each presenter was certainly feeling: She began her pitch by apologizing to the man she'd just walked in on in the restroom. The men's restroom. Sometimes nerves get the better of us.

But her company's mission resonated with the audience and the four-person panel of judges, themselves movers-and-shakers within the business community: Mike Johnson, Francine Hardaway, Stephanie Bermudez, and Tim Kelley. That mission? To get rid of the paperwork that comes with mandatory hearing and vision screenings throughout schools. A former teacher, Evans created an automated software system, AVA, which saves schools both money and time by allowing nurses and educators to focus on the students and the screenings, rather than the forms.

"It's always so nerve-wracking, because you care so much about what you do and your heart is so on your sleeve and you’re always vulnerable," she said after being crowned a winner. "I always think about the weight of the people that I'm carrying, like all the kids that need screening and people that are doing equity work for me — the people that have believed in me and are partnering with me, I feel that weight too. So, when I get up anywhere — and I probably shouldn't do it that way, I should think of it as strength instead — but you feel this sense of obligation to them. That always makes me nervous."

Code Technology creator Breanna Cunningham says she's planning on refining her pitch going into San Francisco. The entrepreneur ran out of time, going over her slotted two minutes for pitch and one minute to answer questions from the judges. It was the case of a presentation getting in the way of the great idea, but the judges — and the audience — could tell the concept was worthwhile. Cunningham's company has a niche goal: Collect patient outcome data and create an associated database. At present, the company is focused on orthopedic surgeries and has partnered with surgeons and doctors across the state. That data would then be used for doctors, surgeons, and hospitals to create a personal and ideal experience for the patient.

"I think that we have the fundamentals in place," Cunningham said of her business. "But being able to share our scalability, our revenue model, and just honest to gosh more confidence in my delivery [will help in San Francisco].”

A native Arizonan who recently relocated to California, Cunningham got her business off the ground with help from co-working space CO+HOOTS. Similarly, Evans' startup was nurtured by Seed Spot, where her company, AZ Vision and Hearing, won the Spring 2015 Demo Day. Both CO+HOOTS and Seed Spot were sponsors of Saturday's event.

Tucson-founded and Scottsdale-based NoteBowl didn't benefit explicitly from that kind of incubation service, but Chief Operating Officer Alec Stapp said his group found out about Challenge Cup through 1776, the organization behind the event. NoteBowl has already been pitching to investors in San Francisco, Stapp said, so he's looking forward to furthering those connections during the Challenge Cup trip.

NoteBowl is a social platform, designed by students as an answer to the many issues that come with campus-wide online services like BlackBoard and others. NoteBowl streamlines that process, creating a community and easy-to-use option that faculty in 10 institutions, from kindergarten through higher education, are already praising. The goal is to "improve institutional efficiency and increase student success, both inside and outside the classroom," and the network is still in use at the institution that started it all: University of Arizona. Additionally, it's also slightly operational in Ohio University, University of Hawaii, University of Alaska, and Pima Community College. 

"We hope to replicate a good pitch and make it convincing," Stapp said. "Obviously the competition will be higher level, but everyone here [at The Newton] did great and we're happy to represent Arizona."

Challenge Cup, an international competition for startups, was created by 1776, a Washington D.C.-based "global incubator and seed fund." The first round is held locally in 50 cities. From there, 135 winners are chosen to move on to one of nine regional contests. Out of those, 45 selected winners face-off in the finals, which will be held in Washington D.C. during 1776's "Challenge Festival," a weeklong festival that takes place next June.

The winner of Challenge Cup 2016 will receive $1 million, media training, and connections with potential investors among other to-be-named prizes.

Editor's note: This post has been updated from its original version.

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