By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
Aceable, Water Lens, Spot On Sciences and Reaction Housing were the four winners of the 1776 Challenge Cup Competition held at Capital Factory Friday night. The four will be flown to Washington D.C. to compete against the winners from 15 other global cities for a chance at a $150,000 prize.
1776, a new incubator in Washington D.C., began with the idea of supporting the most promising startups in highly regulated industries, said Melissa Steffan, a 1776 staffer. “We’re looking for companies that are doing amazing things in industries that are notoriously hard to work in,” she said. Those industries include education, health, energy and smart cities. The Challenge Cup was launched only six months after the co-working space opened.
Austin was one of 16 global startup hubs chosen by the incubator. Other cities involved in the challenge include London, Sao Paulo, Moscow and Beijing. Twenty seven local startups competed.
Evan Burfield, one of 1776’s cofounders, said that in many ways, the startup world was its own global community. “Everybody’s talking about the same things and they all speak English,” he said. “You’ll hear a guy with a thick Russian accent saying ‘We need to pivot.’” In Austin, he said, he was struck by the spirit of collaboration and support, how startups all seemed to want to help each other. By the same token, he said, “Austin’s out to win. The judges in there were all talking about who can we send who will win the championship.”
Aceable won in the education department. The company has developed native mobile gaming apps for online courses that are normally considered very dull—including driver’s ed. Mobile apps are how young people function now, said founder Blake Garrett. Aceable courses are “enjoyable, personal, attractive and fun.”
The company has submitted its first course to the state for approval. It also intends to produce courses for older drivers, defensive driving students and corporate training. Right now though, they’re going after teen drivers.
“ A lot of education companies can’t articulate: Who is your user, tell me everything about them, about who is going to buy your product,” said founder Garrett.
Spot on Sciences won in the health category. The company, which has developed a product that lets people in remote areas take, store and mail blood samples without degrading the quality of the sample, has become crucial in areas like rural Africa, especially for HIV testing in infants and new mothers and the Western Isles of Scotland where diabetes is common and access to a clinic or lab is nonexistent.
“From a quarter size splat of dried blood, you can do 30 or 40 different tests,” said Dr. Jeanette Hill, founder of Spot On Sciences.
Water Lens won in the energy category. This company has a simple, fast method for testing water that has been used in hydraulic fracturing. Many companies are reusing water from one well to the next, said founder Keith Cole. But there are certain elements the water may contain that will make water unsuitable for reuse and may even clog up wells permanently. Testing the water and waiting for results is a laborious process that requires some knowledge of chemistry.
These test strips can be dipped in the water and give the results of 12 tests in a couple of minutes.
Right now, Cole said, he doesn’t know of anyone doing anything similar, but they must be out there. In response to a question by judge Mark Murdock he answered “My scariest competitor is someone I don’t know who is doing the same thing…and we need to get there first.”
In the smart cities category, the winner was Reaction Housing. This company creates temporary housing for victims of natural disasters refugees and others who suddenly have no place to live. Typically, said founder Michael McDaniel, it takes FEMA 90 days to set up temporary housing. In the meantime, people live in church basements and gymnasiums, if they exist.
Reaction Housing systems were inspired by the stackable coffee cup. They are light enough to be moved by hand, include power and can be stacked and transported so that a whole community can be set up at once.
McDaniel said the company is not only looking at emergency housing but also temporary housing for field work—such as a new oil field opening up and many workers flooding in—and for events, like ACL and F1.
The judging panel included Josh Baer, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Capital Factory, Bob Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet and professor of innovation at the University of Texas at Austin, and Kevin Callahan, co-founder of MapMyFitness. As for 1776, they were thrilled with the judging panel they had: “This is actually one of the most distinguished judging panels we’ve had,” said Steffan.
Capital Factory offered free coaching for the winning companies before they go to Washington in May.