“One simple idea can change everything” was the catchphrase for Harvard Business School’s 2014 New Venture Competition. And with $150,000 in cash awarded on Tuesday to four new startups, it’s now time to see if that motto rings true.
The challenge’s recent success stories, complete with winners and runners-up, are proof the phrase has merit. What started as an idea for a monthly subscription service for beauty products turned into Birchbox, a company that raised $60 million just last week. Or take RallyPoint, known as “the LinkedIn for the military.” Since being crowned a runner-up in 2012, the startup has gone on to secure nearly $6.6 million in funding.
“Entrepreneurs are an unusual and quirky bunch,” said Meredith McPherron, director of Harvard Business School’s Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship, to a filled Burden Auditorium. “You are unreasonable and irrational. Yet, it’s the unreasonable and irrational ones that change the world.”
Saathi, the first-place winner of the competition’s Social Enterprise Track, is out to change the world and is starting with India. The startup turns wasted banana tree fiber into affordable sanitary pads, as well as provides employment opportunities. The pads are locally manufactured by rural women who then sell the low-cost pads door-to-door.
Runner-up, and winner of $25,000, was Tomato Jos, a vertically integrated tomato processing company, helping smallholder farmers in Nigeria become expert tomato growers. “Tomato Jos” is Nigerian slang for “a cute girl,” thereby leading the team to urge the crowd, “Please let us be your ‘Tomato Jos.'”
Also walking away with $25,000 and taking second-place in the Business Track was Booya Fitness, which features seven monthly videos, each corresponding to a day of the week. Seventy-five percent of the workouts don’t require equipment, and all can be done in 30 minutes or less. The startup will be featured in next month’s issue of Glamour magazine.
Nabbing the first-place, $50,000 Business Track prize, however, was Alfred, a concierge service Boston residents can use to complete their daily and weekly tasks, such as dry cleaning, house cleaning, groceries, laundry and more.
“Imagine a world where you never have to do your chores again,” Co-founder Marcela Sapone told the crowd.
Alfred initially surfaced as a portfolio product of WHITESPACE, “the first vertically integrated VC,” launched by Sapone and Jessica Beck. Last March, the pair were two of five Harvard Business School students who helped build five companies in five days. One of those companies was Alfred.
“This win feels unbelievable,” said Beck. “We didn’t think this would happen.”
Sapone agreed, adding that the process has been painful, yet exhilarating; a total rollercoaster. “We were very honest, forthright and earnest,” said Sapone, referring to their pitch the New Venture Competition’s judges. “We stated the facts.”
Beck chimed in: “The facts were pretty compelling.”
“The nice thing about entrepreneurs is that they see problems as opportunity,” said Professor William Sahlman, senior associate dean for external relations, during the competition.
Thanks to Alfred, our problems — chores — have become their opportunity.
Images via BostInno/@HarvardHBS