The Road to the Final Four

15th May, 2020 No Comments Blog

Behind the Scenes of the Cornell Tech Startup Awards

Today, ten startups founded by Cornell Tech students competed in the Sixth Annual Startup Awards, vying to be one of four winners to receive $100,000 in cash and services from Cornell. A description of each of the competing companies can be found here and the video of Open Studio, including short pitches from each of the ten, is here. If you have not seen the video pitches, I highly recommend watching them; having seen thousands of pitches and organized and judged many competitions, I think they are some of the best I’ve seen from newly-founded companies. 

If you have seen the videos, you may be wondering where these teams came from, and how they made it to the finals? I’ll attempt to answer those questions in this post.

First, a bit of background in case you missed the preamble for Open Studio. The Awards are a program of Cornell Tech, a New York City-based branch of Cornell University, home of the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, focused on graduate applied sciences. Cornell Tech is home to Masters, PhD, and post-doctoral students in fields including Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Business, Law, Operations Research; as well as bespoke programs like Connective Media, Health Tech, and Urban Tech. 

The Awards are a concluding celebration of the Studio Program for the year. The Studio at Cornell Tech is a collection of classes in which students work in interdisciplinary teams to apply their academic knowledge to solve real-world problems by creating new digital products. I teach Startup Studio, which is one of two capstone courses, together with BigCo Studio, for the Studio curriculum. This year, 186 students formed 46 teams to pursue new business ideas in Startup Studio.

Ultimately, 25 teams applied for Startup Awards this year. Many came out of Startup Studio, but the Awards are open to any Cornell Tech student team, and we had entrants who developed their startup ideas outside of class as well. As in prior years, in order to qualify for Startup Awards, teams had to include Cornell Tech founders who are committed to working full time on their startup should they win. The first step in the process was submitting a written application, which ran to five pages or so, not including exhibits, for most applicants, with details on their teams, plans, products, potential impact, and more. They submitted videos, cap tables, budgets, and investor pitch decks. What had been a school project for many students took a major step toward becoming a real company at this point.

Applying teams then became eligible (and were required) to participate in a series of workshops and events, including “VC [Venture Capital] Days,” when teams meet with investors and founders to pitch and receive feedback. It was at this point that COVID-19 forced some changes on the process compared to years past, when these meetings would take place in person, with the dozens of students mingling with dozens of investors and other professionals. Such gatherings were already out of the question by the time VC Days came along, so the Spinout Team (the group of Cornell Tech faculty and staff who organize the Awards) went virtual. We moved the VC Day interactions online, hosting the sessions in Zoom rooms. The virtual  interactions lacked the handshakes and informal networking of years past, but were better in some ways: we were able to include investors from Silicon Valley, for example. In the end, the teams interacted with dozens of professional investors and accomplished founders through the Spinout programs. 

In the second and final VC Day, the participating investors provided feedback on the team pitches that the Spinout Team then used to narrow the field from 25 to ten teams. The finalists were notified on April 29, at which point they had just one week to prepare a five minute video pitch for Open Studio. In years past, they would have had over two weeks to get ready for their live presentations on stage in front of the Open Studio audience, but, this year, they had to submit their videos with enough time for our professional producer to edit them together for the final Open Studio program on May 15. The teams also had that short time to work out any remaining intellectual property issues with each other and any other students who worked on their projects but may not be planning to join their startups after graduation.

The few days leading up to the May 6 deadline were a whirlwind of practice sessions with the Spinout team and recording for the finalists. In the end, as I am sure you agree if you watched the videos (again, if you haven’t you should), all the teams told compelling stories, some very personal, and proved their ingenuity and dedication. On the way to Open Studio, the student teams became company founders in a real sense, making difficult decisions regarding post-graduate professional commitments, company roles, equity allocations, and other challenging founder issues.

In past years, the finalists presented at Open Studio to an invited audience including a panel of judges – investors and Cornell Tech faculty – who meet immediately after the pitches conclude to select the winners. This year, because Open Studio had to be pre-recorded, the judges had to watch the videos and make decisions before the event.

So it was that, a few days before Open Studio, seventeen judges, including venture capitalists, founders of successful technology companies, and Cornell Tech faculty and practitioners, met virtually to select the four winners. As in the past, the judge pool comprised more practicing professionals than Cornell Tech participants, so as to enhance the focus on real-world impact and viability in the final selection. The judges, all with many other commitments, each spent over an hour watching the pitch videos and preparing before the deliberations. All were very vocal, active participants in the live session, which entailed nearly two hours of iterative voting and discussion. As in the VC Days, the judges considered a variety of factors in the selection, including competition, barriers to entry, potential impact, team backgrounds, traction, and the potential to generate revenue and attract funding.

In the end, four teams were selected, along with a runner-up who will benefit from continued mentoring and services from Cornell Tech – you can see all five named here. Congratulations to these teams! These five, along with the twenty other applicants to this year’s Startup Awards, represent the ideals of Cornell Tech, namely, impact in the form of applied technology. The Awards are just one step in the journey for the teams that continue, whether they won or not. 

My deepest respect goes to the teams, and my thanks to all those who made this year’s Startup Awards possible – the VC Day participants, Startup Awards judges, and my fellow Spinout team members. Finally, best wishes to all the participating teams!

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