August 21, 2011

Pitching a Cleaner, Greener, Tastier World. ~ Emily Alex

Did Friday’s soggy weather keep you from making the trip out to Boulder Theater for COMMON Pitch? Here’s what you missed.

This elephant-sponsored “Party to Fix the World” was an occasion for thirteen entrepreneurs, a panel of judges and 500+ attendees to unite around one common interest: socially conscious business. The event’s impetus, as host Alex Bogusky put it, was: “The world’s in a bit of a jam. We can’t keep doing things as we have.”

The response to this call for change came in the form of ten unique business pitches from a variety of disciplines, ranging from socially- and environmentally-mindful gadgets, to eco-produced foods, to sustainable city planning. Most prevalent, however, was the domain of social media and internet tools, with four out of the ten presentations focusing on bringing together like-minded people digitally, to move the world in a real way.

Whether passionate about saving the world, or simply about saving microwave popcorn, each presenter or team of presenters took to the stage for five minutes (more or less) to pitch their business venture. Each presentation was followed by a round of feedback from the judging panel. The judges — including elephant journal‘s own Waylon Lewis — offered pitch critiques and compliments, investment advice, potential business contacts, and in some cases, sincere encouragement in the vein of: “Fantastic idea! Make it happen!”

Candle lighting lent a classy feel to the small venue, while Bogusky’s playful commentary kept it casual and light, but the ten bright ideas could have sold themselves, and the audience, though chatty, was anything but unreceptive.

Solar power, the night’s big winner

Bell Solar LED Lamp

Kristian Bye and Marius Andresen, the inventors of the Bell Solar Lamp, captivated the judges with their humanitarian purpose and sunny personalities, and went home (to Norway no less) with the first prize. Their product is a brilliant (heh heh), affordable and safe lighting alternative to kerosene lamps. Their hope is that the multi-functional Bell Lamp will eventually replace the oil lamps so pervasive in Africa, which can be as harmful as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day and burn up as much as 40% of a typical family’s yearly income.

The audience choice award went to Princeton ‘MechE’ Eden Full for her SunSaluter (even if half of her prize — an audience-circulated offertory plate, er, suitcase — mysteriously did not). Full’s design, piloted in Kenya, is an easy-to-use solar panel rotating device that optimizes energy collection.

“Wow, I really thought you guys had blown it!”

Bogusky didn’t hide his surprise in reading that the BETAshower team of Valli Lakshmanan and Rob Martin Murphy were to receive the silver medal (actually, the silver “inspiration bolt” trophy); their presentation had been less than a homerun. Looking like a buff, black v-neck wearing Mr. Clean, Murphy began: “Hello fellow reasonably fortunate humans!” and took a show-of-hands survey to demonstrate that the majority of the people in the room were fortunate enough to have access to a daily shower. He then elaborated on the importance of hygiene — perhaps overdoing it, as one woman sitting front and center yelled out an unsolicited and possibly alcohol-fueled: “Question! Hey, question here! Why don’t you just tell us what you’re actually selling already! Jeez!” A dumbstruck Murphy handed the mic off to Lakshmanan, who did just that, explaining their prototype for a one cent per minute shower that is “portable, scalable, and — most importantly — payable.” The judges were dubious of the fact that one of the BETAshower‘s three water sources was “recycled shower water.” I am too.  Nonetheless, we were all impressed by the design’s use of rainwater and its ability to save lives while generating revenue for communities in need.

The future of volunteering, reading, instant messaging & doodling

Audience members were also hyped about MediaCause.org, a five-months-young company that aims to forever change the relationship between volunteers and non-profit organizations by tapping into two abundant resources — one human and one economic. Eric Pacas, the brain behind the ‘Cause, won some whoops from the audience by starting off with: “So I quit my job to start this,” and went on to explain that many benevolent organizations are in sore need of advertising and social media expertise, but cannot afford to hire full-time staff. In his view, helping an N.G.O. to make use of its Google Grants funding is the tech-nerd version of ‘cleaning up at the animal shelter’ or ‘playing rummy at the retirement home.’ During the intermission a young social media professional named A.J. shared his approval: “It’s something I could definitely see myself doing. You give an hour of your time doing something simple, and you know that it’s generating serious income for these N.G.O.’s or non-for-profits.”

According to Bookswap founders Avni Chinoy and Teo Bazgu, a young duo from New York, the future of consumerism is “less buying, more borrowing.” (Heck yeah!) They pitched their concept — originally a design class final project — for a new way to borrow books by turning personal book collections into shared digital libraries. Like MediaCause.org’s Pacas, Chinoy and Bazgu have found a way to put an underused resource — in their case, the books gathering dust on your shelves — to use.

Similarly interested in using shared tastes to unite people via the internet was Mathew Ranauro, with his less successful pitch for the social media application meeps. According to Ranauro, the mission of meeps is to generate quality, world-wide instant messaging conversations around a specific topic: by-passing the need for “friends” and “followers” and turning social media chatter into deep, meaningful chats. A few of the judges were reticent to comment, and the emcee just shrugged benignly, saying: “It makes me feel like Twitter did.” elephant’s Waylon Lewis (an ardent proponent of social media and, of course, an avid tweeter) was more direct, asking: “I don’t get it. How is this any different from Google+? What is it good for?” Yowch. Waylon later added, “What was that pitch even doing here?” Although I approve of the name, which sounds like ready-made slang for “my peeps” or “meet people,” and also recalls one of my favorite Looney Tunes’s characters, I have to agree with Mr. elephant on this. The demo video included in Ranauro’s sleek powerpoint showed meep-sters chatting about global warming — a subject with a sure place at COMMON — but one can easily imagine this technology being squandered on profane topics: Jersey Shore, Lady Gag, kitties, or in other words, any and all themes void of relevance to socially-conscious change.

Entrepreneur Nicholas Dunbar’s Artgizmos was also light on the social impact side, though he contends that his model for zero waste printing will do away with the current problem of 1.2 trillion dollars of excess merchandise — a significant ecological benefit. With its intuitive drawing software program, sharing via Facebook and a “Mess with it” function, users of the application (“ordinary people like you”) can partake in a “graphical conversation.”

“Cute” foodies

Kristy and Coulter Lewis of Boston had a pitch that was sweet (and lightly salted). The couple, creators of Quinn Popcorn, were inspired by the idea of taking microwave popcorn — a food that was “the epitome of processed” — and turning it into a product that they would actually be willing to eat. Kristy claims that their relationship with the corn farmers is so close that she has all of them on speed-dial. The Lewis’ popcorn now comes in three unique, gourmet flavors (lemon & sea salt, maple & sea salt, and parmesan & rosemary), but it was their “Pure Pop” bag that really sold me; made from wood pulp, the bag is 100% “Crap-free” and compostable. The two are hoping that their reinvention will soon pop up on Conagra’s radar and that the GM giant will “have to respond” to their earth-friendly competition. One day. Eventually. Okay, maybe it’s a long shot, but the judges swept aside the couple’s naivety, as well as the fact that their product is not-quite-entirely organic (“about halfway,” they say, for practical reasons) and complimented them on their overall cuteness and punchy attitude, promising that it’d take them far — if only among an elite, Whole Foods-going crowd.

Who loves chocolate?

Ritual Chocolate was launched by Boulderite pair Robbie Stout and Ana Davies. Robbie began the presentation with an endearing introduction/apology: “our chocolate tastes way better than our public speaking… will… be.” But if they were ill at ease behind the podium, it was well hidden under the layers of enthusiasm. In fact, their presentation has me excited about the venture already, even if I have never given “the best dark chocolate in the world” a taste. Robbie went on to say that the bars contain only two ingredients: cocoa and sugar, because “chocolate is like fine wine. Flavor enhancers and additives just mask the subtle nuances.” When Robbie and Ana say that they “are willing to pay more for better quality,” they aren’t referring solely to the quality of their cocoa beans, but also to the quality of life for the Costa Rican farmers with whom they collaborate. And this partnership is fair-trade and sustainable “from bean to bar.” As the judges rightly warned, the large-scale chocolate companies that are responsible for seventy percent of the world’s chocolate production have emptied fashionable terms like ‘pure,’ ‘fair-trade,” and ‘sustainable’ of meaning (just as, according the Robbie and Ana, they’ve gradually emptied chocolate of its true flavor). At least those fair trade fakers have nothing on Ritual‘s eco-packaging. At present, the chocolate bars are wrapped in compostable paper made from cocoa bean shells, but Robbie and Ana are hoping to soon include peppermint seeds in the wrappers, so that rather than discarding the chocolate wrapper, the consumer can plant it and a mint plant will grow. “Then they can use the leaves to make tea to pair with our chocolate,” Ana said. Their final slide featured a full-screen shot of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka: an apt analogy.

“The Whole Foods of Housing”

Lastly, Prairie Sage, Colorado’s Chris Davies pitched Eco-Town, his solution to the “largest problem” faced by those wishing to live a low-impact life: our homes. Davies suggests that, “the real problem isn’t the house, but the neighborhood.” His bird’s-eye-view diagram demonstrated what he called “the Whole Foods of housing”:  a well-planned community complete with a network of ped paths, peripheral roads, a co-op and community gardens. The Eco-Town houses would use eighty-five percent fewer resources on a daily basis. At this figure, the audience burst into applause. Davies’ presentation ended with a shaky, but impassioned: “So, let’s do this!” The judges’ enthusiasm reflected that final exclamation and they urged him take his Eco-Town from blueprint to Colorado Front Range.


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