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STARTUP302: Giving Underrepresented Founders a Chance to Shine

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Toivoa Laura Randa Startup302 Delaware

Laura Randa pitches her health tech company Toivoa to the Startup302 judging panel during the 2023 program. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DPP

Irene Rombel knows a lot about artificial intelligence, cells and gene therapy. In fact, she could talk about them all day. The trouble is, people who haven’t studied biochemistry and molecular biology might not understand her. That was the lesson she learned as a participant in the Delaware-based pitch competition Startup302.

“I learned I had to talk to the audience, not the tech experts,” says Rombel, citing notes she received from judges during the competition. Her company BioCurie, an AI-based software company working in the cell and gene therapy market, took third place in the Life Sciences division of the competition last year.

She says the money, $8,750, was nice. “Every little bit helps when you are a startup.” But the notes and coaching were the greatest benefit. They helped her land a Delaware EDGE (Encouraging Development, Growth and Expansion) Grant later that same year. “By the time I got to EDGE, I’d really honed my message,” she says.

That’s the idea behind Startup302, which is working to create new opportunities for underrepresented founders. Applicants to the pitch fest must be tech-enabled, with at least one founder from an underrepresented group: women; people of color, including African Americans, Latin Americans and Native Americans; or members of the LGBTQ+ community — all groups whose ventures are underinvested in, relative to their demographic’s percentage of the overall United States population.

To foster diverse perspectives, promote inclusive and equitable consideration and attract diverse communities of founders to the region, applicants to the pitch fest do not need to be from or in Delaware. Applicants in the last two years have come from as far as Canada and Nigeria, says Noah Olson, director of innovation for the Delaware Prosperity Partnership, one of the organizers of Startup302. He does hope that some of the out-of-state applicants who make their final pitches in Wilmington this year will see how great the First State is.

Applicants are judged on their written concept narratives; live presentations, including question responses; potential opportunity; salability; regional impact; skills and value added by the management team; and “wow factor.”

A Forum of Connection and Community

Von Homer says he thinks it was the interplay between him and his co-founder and wife, Nicole, that won the judges over. Homer’s company, HX Innovations, is a neuro-ergonomic footwear technology company that took home $60,000 in grant funding in 2021.

“We were pretty excited,” he says. The competition led to him becoming an “evangelist” of sorts about his company, inspiring him to start talking to anyone who would listen about HX Innovations. It’s definitely not just about money, he says.

“The Startup302 Pitch Competition provides underrepresented founders a forum of connection and community, aligning them with support, education and resources from the Delaware ecosystem,” says Troy Farmer, director of The Garage makerspace at Delaware State University. She led a session on team building for last year’s applicants and is scheduled to be a moderator in 2023.

Connections made were important to the applicants, says Homer. He still talks with some of the judges and interacts with the company that provided part of the prize money.

“A pitch fest aimed at underrepresented founders is important; my opinion is anything designed to achieve fairness is a good thing,” says Homer.

The disparity of funding and opportunity is what caused StartOut, a Boston-based nonprofit founded to empower LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs, to get involved with Startup302.

“Obviously, venture capital funding is not distributed fairly across underrepresented groups,” says Kayla DiPilato, who heads up partnerships for StartOut. She first heard about Startup302 from active members of StartOut Nick Martin and Jo Norris, whose company Carbon Reform won first place in its division last year. “Research has found that only 0.5% of venture capital funding goes to the LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs.”

StartOut distributed the application for Startup302 to its 25,000-member database and plans to provide support on the day of the final competition for 2023.

“We know of three startups that got through the first round. We’ll see who gets to pitch,” she says. “We’re really excited.”

Last year, 12 of the 125 initial applicants shared more than $170,000 in funding. For 2023, 170 applicants are vying for $218,000. There will be three finalists in the five categories of the competition: Early Stage, Life Sciences, Clean Green and Blue, FinTech and Delaware Tech-Enabled. These categories reflect Delaware’s evolving innovation and industry landscape and include the agriculture, chemistry and advanced materials sectors as well as more broadly tech areas like artificial intelligence/ machine learning, big data, software as a service and e-sports.

Startup302 partners include First Founders, the Delaware Sustainable Chemistry Alliance, Delmarva Power, the University of Delaware’s Horn Entrepreneurship, JP Morgan Chase & Co., the Small Business Development Center, Delaware State University’s College of Business, M&T Bank and StartOut.

According to Olson, though specific funding varies by company, every finalist will receive some share of the total funds.

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