If you’re a U.S. based college student with a startup or startup idea, chances are you may be looking for capital to get your business off the ground. Many early-stage startups incorrectly believe they need to find investors before they have even achieved Product Market Fit (Read up on Product Market Fit here). College students often lack the financial resources or savings to invest into their business. That’s where collegiate pitch competitions come in. There are many pitch competitions run by universities or organizations geared towards student entrepreneurs that are a fantastic way to raise capital for your startup. They are often free to apply to, and offer sizable prizes in the form of funding, resources, or mentorship without taking equity away from founders. If you enter and win enough of them, you will have a solid foundation to fund your early startup’s operations.
Collegiate pitch competitions are also a fun way to fully immerse yourself amongst student founders just like you. These competitions are excellent opportunities for developing your business idea into a full-fledged startup. Many offer workshops, practice rounds, and mentors that will help you refine your idea or startup, and increase your confidence and business acumen. Pitch competitions can help startups with a variety of challenges from raising startup capital, attracting potential investors, scouting advisors, building your network, increasing visibility, developing new business models and product iterations, and learning about additional programs available to your startup. In this how to guide we will explore some strategies you can use to approach collegiate pitch competitions, which differ from pitch competitions offered to later stage startups.
Pitch competitions can differ in terms of eligibility requirements, location and relocation stipulations, prizes, network size, and accessibility, The main difference between collegiate and late-stage startup competitions is focus. Collegiate competitions tend to focus on the ingredients that make for successful future entrepreneurs, the individual, while late-stage startup competitions focus more on the venture. This includes evaluating the business on it’s growth, profitability, valuation, and team competency. The four main criteria you will want to include in your early-stage startup pitch are: your startup’s story, your startup’s innovation potential, your comprehension of the market, and your entrepreneurial grit. If your startup can convey all four of these in the short time it takes to ride an elevator, your startup will be on track to win several pitch competitions.
One student-led startup that has successfully raised thousands of dollars in funding from pitch competitions, including our own U.Pitch competition in 2019, is Mi Terro. Robert Luo founded Mi Terro as he was attending the University of Southern California. He started the company in 2018 after visiting his uncle’s dairy farm in China, where he noticed there were buckets and buckets of sour and spoiled milk everywhere. His uncle expressed frustration because that was milk he could not sell, it was a huge loss of income. So Robert began thinking about a solution for his uncle. After researching ways to convert the unused milk into something else, he found that milk protein has polymer-like properties that make it perfect for being spun into a soft fiber. Today he is producing protein-based fabric and plastic to replace petroleum-based raw materials with the lofty goal of reducing waste and carbon emissions. Let’s analyze his pitch from South Summit 2020:
A compelling pitch will draw your audience in and there is no better way to do this than painting a picture. What is the problem and why should they listen to you? Who are you and what is your value proposition? What makes you stand out from the crowd? It could be anything from a short personal story to a customer’s journey. This is your opportunity to tell your audience about you and how you are tapping into an unmet market need. Convey the problem by making them empathize and understand the difficulty you or your customer is facing. It is important to make your hook personable, clear, and concise.
As you can see from Robert’s hook he gets straight to the point. With growing public concern over the global climate crisis he asks the audience if they are tired of wasting food and polluting the environment. The assumption is that most people would answer ‘yes’, but maybe the audience does not realize how bad the situation is. He paints a grim picture of the amount of global food waste, milk waste, and the greenhouse gasses produced as a direct result. The numbers are staggering. He has our attention. He then offers a solution that almost sounds too good to be true. Milk waste turned into fabric and plastic? Without giving too much away at first he has captivated the audience to the point where they want to know more.
As your pitch moves past the hook you will want to delve deeper into your value proposition. What is your startup offering? How is it a solution to the problem? Can you explain the technology behind your new product or service? It is important to assume that the audience knows nothing about the space you’re working in, so avoid using industry jargon as best as you can. This is your chance to demonstrate your startup’s innovation potential. Show how unique and promising your solution is at addressing the problem as defined by your hook. Now let’s see how Robert defined his startup’s innovation potential:
From Robert’s pitch we can see that he outlines how Mi Terro is innovating both the textile and plastic packaging industry by using an untapped resource: milk waste. He goes one step further by introducing several patent pending technologies specific to his company with applications to multiple food waste products, including plant-based food products that have grown in popularity in recent years. Following the introduction of his technology he lists products that can be made from his process like clothing, bedding, medical supplies and plastic food packaging. From this part of the pitch, the audience gets a clear picture of how Mi Terro has the potential to disrupt multiple industries.
This is vital. As a founder you must have a clear understanding of your market. This includes the market size, market opportunity, competitors, and annual growth. If you do not know these numbers I suggest spending the time to do your own research. Sometimes it can be difficult to find specific information, especially when your product is novel or includes emerging technologies. Even though you may not be able to get to all these metrics, someone will likely ask for them during a follow-up session immediately after your pitch. The best thing you can do for your pitch is focus on your strengths. If you have several competitive advantages, list them. By demonstrating a keen understanding of your market, you are signaling to the audience that you will be a serious competitor and are less likely to fail due to a lack of market comprehension.
Since most pitch competitions are timed, Robert decided to focus on his competitive advantages. For his milk fabric he turns his focus to the organic cotton industry, which has become one of the most popular eco-friendly fabric options in the textile industry. He explains that his fabric can compete with organic cotton by reducing the water used in production and as a cheaper alternative. Then he demonstrates how his plastic solution can address two problems for companies producing dairy products by making use of their waste and providing a less expensive packaging alternative to other bio-based plastic manufacturers while maintaining high quality standards. At the end of this portion he backs up his claims by disclosing his partnership with the largest supplier of dairy in the world, indicating his ability to source and scale production.
There are many ways to demonstrate entrepreneurial grit but the best way is by showing your startup has traction. Traction can be demonstrated both pre-revenue and post-revenue. For pre-revenue operations you can demonstrate traction by showing what you have done to get to where you are today. This can include market research, prototype development and design, attending industry conferences, generating customer leads, speaking with buyers, raising funds, and so forth. By highlighting milestones in your startup journey, you are demonstrating to your audience that you have put in the sweat equity and are invested in the success of your business.
In this final portion of Robert’s pitch the audience learns more about his startup’s traction. He highlights early purchase commitments he received from two large food suppliers, Dole Food Company, a fruits and vegetable company, and Arla Foods, a dairy supplier. In addition, he also received a purchase and confirmation of a new clothing line planned using his milk fiber by Harada Corporation. Robert also highlights his team that include experts across various fields. He shares that Mi Terro is working hard to achieve several future milestones that include the launch of their pilot program for the milk fiber in early 2021 and the packaging film in late 2021. By the end of the pitch the audience can feel confident knowing that Robert’s entrepreneurial grit has allowed him to turn an idea into a promising startup with traction across multiple industries.
At Future Founders we are proud to offer young entrepreneurs enrolled at universities an opportunity to showcase their business ideas to an expansive network of entrepreneurs and investors. U.Pitch our annual elevator pitch competition exposes entrepreneurs to the startup ecosystem and allows them to learn and engage with founders from around the country. The competition involves founders pitching their business idea in 90 seconds or less. If you want to learn more about elevator pitches check out our guide here. Our startup community votes for their favorite pitches and top performing startups are awarded a portion of $10,000. Learn more about U.Pitch here!
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