Right before last night’s Challenge Cup Regional Finals was about to begin, a moderator trying to locate a missing contestant asked if “Effortless Energy could come to the stage.” Though she was referring to a specific startup, it may have well been a metaphor for the night and all of the participants.

Nearly thirty Chicago startups displayed effortless energy at 1871, rifling off one-minute pitch after one-minute pitch in order to try and move on to the Challenge Cup Finals in May. (The Challenge Cup is a global competition for startups working in Education, Energy, Health, and Cities that’s hosted by 1776, DC’s entrepreneurial hub. Sixteen regional finals are held and the top 64 – 4 from each region – go on to compete for $650,000 in prizes at the nation’s capital).

The event was kicked off by Senator Mark Kirk – who said that his goal was “to beat those bastards in Silicon Valley” – and it featured a consistent level of applause and “whoops.”

Effortless Energy!

Though every pitch was different, a similar thread emerged amongst the best ones. The strongest presentations either featured an endearing anecdote – like Schoolrush, whose CEO started the company because he couldn’t get a straight answer from his daughter regarding her homework – or actual business traction – like ReliefWatch just signing a contract with Liberia.

Some companies, like Fitness Cubed – a manufacturer of wireless ellipticals that go underneath an office desk – and Classkick – a platform for incentivizing and streamlining student feedback – had both. (The former began with obesity stats and segued into its $350,000 crowdfunding campaign and the latter started with tales about being a math teacher before mentioning the company’s 50% growth month-over-month.

But at the end of the day, only four could move on to DC. And Chicago’s finalists are:

  • Education: Packback – Instead of paying hundreds of dollars for textbooks that they’ll only use a handful of times, students can “pay-per-use” on the Packback platform, saving them money and recovering revenue for publishers that they’re losing to the secondary book market.
  • Energy: SmarterShade An emerging clean technology, users use SmarterShade to instantly darken a room with the flip of a switch.
  • Health: ReliefWatch – Healthcare organizations in the developing world use ReliefWatch to track inventory via smartphone technology.
  • Cities: Guard Llama – The company provides users with a handheld remote that immediately and discreetly sends their exact location to the police, minimizing the time and danger involved with a traditional 911 call.