Uptake: Esprit Venture Challenge Propels Startup Social Entrepreneurs

December 23rd, 2015

Diane Dandeneau, Maithreyi Gopalakrishnan and Brian Plavnicky at the Esprit Venture Challenge.

Diane Dandeneau, Maithreyi Gopalakrishnan and Brian Plavnicky at the Esprit Venture Challenge.

Winning Finalist Set to Take the Auto Rickshaw World by Storm

by Maya Gurarie

Hosted by the Boulder Chamber, three startup finalists made their pitches for the Esprit Venture Challenge on November 18 at CU’s Touchdown Club. Surya Conversions, maker of hybrid conversion kits for auto rickshaws, won the $10,000 award with a dynamic pitch by its CEO Maithreyi Gopalakrishnan.

“It helped having an audience that was so enthusiastic. When they were clapping in the middle of my pitch it really helped me. This competition opened my eyes for how well the Boulder Chamber is connected and how I can take our business to the next level,” said Gopalakrishnan.

The criteria for the challenge included startups being in operation for less than 2 years, social entrepreneurship and a clear model for achieving sustainable return on investment. A total of 20 companies had vied for the opportunity to present their pitches on stage. Judges Kim Coupounas, George Deriso and Anthony Moorhouse asked contestants practical questions about company financing and impact. After the three finalists concluded making their pitches, those who attended the event voted for their favorite venture through a LinkedIn application. The competition was part of the Boulder Chamber’s Esprit Entrepreneur event, which celebrates innovation and connects entrepreneurs in Boulder.

Reducing Pollution in Developing Countries

While completing a five-year Master’s program at CU in physics engineering, Maithreyi started Surya Conversions. Named after a solar deity in Hinduism, the company’s product is designed to reduce pollution in a city where she visits family—Chennai, India.

She will use the award funds to build a prototype for testing in India, develop a case study and complete the patent on the kit. The company has a chief financial officer, a marketing director, an operations director and a patent manager. They are a collection of scholars from the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business, along with finance and engineering students, with an average age of 22 years old.

Maithreyi has drawn on mentors and influential players helping her company reach success. They include an international supply chain expert and private donors who provided an auto rickshaw in Boulder. The Minister of Road Transport and Highways of India, Nitin Gadkari, indicated that he would like to see a demonstration of the hybrid conversion kit.

Providing Light in Faraway Places

Taking second place, Revel Gear CEO Brian Plavnicky outlined how his LED device could provide light for 12 hours or charge a cell phone while camping. The device attaches to a backpack and gathers energy when exposed to the sun.

Plavnicky started his pitch by plunging the room into darkness to illuminate a strand of solar powered lights wrapped around his water glass. While his products are designed for the camping industry, they will also impact people in developing countries. He provided a business model where Revel Gear will donate an LED light for every product purchased.

“The event was awesome. My hat is off to the Boulder Chamber, the sponsors and everyone that made the night possible. It was a very humbling to be presenting. We have been in business less than two months, and to get this going in that amount of time has been a little crazy. I appreciate the positive feedback,” said Plavnicky.

Off-Grid Solutions for Energy and Water Access

The third finalist, Aquatricity, develops small-scale microgrid power control systems to improve access to electricity and water for people in developing countries. Aquatricity Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Diane Dandeneau, explained the company’s business model and product at the event.

A microgrid controller manages energy from multiple power sources such as batteries and diesel generators, while also integrating solar power and other renewable energy. As an example, the controller can switch from solar power during the day to electricity from a battery or diesel generator at nightfall. Aquatricity’s controller is called Nexus and its initial version manages solar energy to pump water for a village in Nicaragua. This community currently pumps water by hand into a storage tank that they deplete in an hour, so they ration water. Nexus will access and manage the power necessary to continuously fill the tank, eliminating the need to ration water.

“Winning a spot in the final three has raised our profile and we’ve received increased attention from investors who’ve been reading about Aquatricity in the press. It’s great that the Boulder Chamber is highlighting companies that are improving social and environmental conditions in the world. Being chosen as a top three company is a significant achievement for Aquatricity since we only launched the business four months ago. Having grown up in Boulder, I’m excited to have founded a company that delivers social, environmental and financial impact,” said CU Leeds School graduate and Aquatricity CEO Adam Cahn.  

That Collaborative Spirit

Boulder Chamber president and CEO John Tayer concluded the event by describing the character of the word “Boulderpreneur:” those who epitomized a collaborative spirit of risk-taking and creativity.

“The Boulder Chamber is proud of these visionary startups. They are demonstrating once again how Boulder entrepreneurs are world leaders in helping solve big global issues,” said Tayer.


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