Submissions for the 2024 Galant Challenge will open on February 5th.
The McIntire School of Commerce’s Galant Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship plays a key role in the UVA venture ecosystem, and its annual pitch event, the Galant Challenge, is emblematic of the incredible explosion of inspirational ideas and vital funding that the Center is helping to facilitate. Providing an important platform to help ensure that the University fosters a rich nexus of startup problem-solvers and visionary investors, the exciting highlight of the Center’s calendar is growing larger every year.
Since launching in 2012, the Challenge has connected a lengthy list of UVA-related startups—that count current students, alumni, faculty, and other community members—with capital. For the 2022 edition, more than $3 million was invested in the six companies who pitched, with a major portion of that dollar total supplied by CAV Angels, a non-profit club connecting high-potential UVA community member start-ups with its University-related angel investor network. Yet as impressive as the 2022 results were, that record investment for the Challenge would soon be bested.
The 2023 event reached historic levels: Entrepreneur teams seeking funding raised more than $15 million to take their ventures to the next level.
The majority of support was mostly allocated by an investment group of three judges to Spark Car Wash, who closed an investment deal representing nearly half of the $30 million funding raised in the nascent company’s current round. Personalized college advisement service College Contact, launched by Class of ’23 McIntire grads Sophie Smith and Leah Guesman, who presented at the Challenge as students asking for a few hundred thousand, used the experience and $50,000 of one judge’s funding to jumpstart a $1.025 million seed round a few months later. The judges also funded $100,000 into Jordon Durst’s (McIntire ’15) AI-powered data and marketing software business, Ask Alex. Another $100,000 was invested in obesity management clinic Alfie Health, founded by Alexander Singh (Engineering ’19); CAV Angels followed later with $214,000. In addition, Neal Piper’s medtech company, Luminoah, received $418,000 from CAV Angels, adding to the initial $100,000 investment from the Challenge judges.
The numbers support the fact that the Galant Challenge has quickly become one of the largest collegiate funding vehicles in the U.S. Mark Galant (McIntire ’80) notes that while the largest university entrepreneurial event has traditionally been the Rice Business Plan competition, which awards nearly $2 million in cash prizes and in-kind gifts, the Challenge outdid their 2022 results by more than 50% and, in 2023, surpassed it by even more.
But Galant says the pitch competition distinguishes itself in crucial ways: “The other big difference is that the Galant Challenge results are not prizes, but actual investments into the entrepreneurial companies presenting. Very similar to ‘Shark Tank,’ except we have much higher numbers.”
Indeed, what began as a “Shark Tank”-type pitch competition inviting seed- and early-stage ventures to present their concepts to investors and connect with funding has now eclipsed the TV show on which it was loosely based: The percentage of deals that are closed—as well as the investment dollars—are above and beyond anything hopeful entrepreneurs have worked out on television.
Galant says that while only 60% of companies pitching in “Shark Tank” appeared to make a deal while the cameras were rolling, ultimately, only 29% eventually closed a deal, averaging out to about $300,000. “At the Galant Challenge, over the last several years, we have a closure rate of over 80%,” he says, pointing out that a deal made with Spark Car Wash as a result of 2023’s event represents an agreement several times larger than any deal that was ever made on “Shark Tank.” “The valuation was also more than twice the largest ever on the TV show,” Galant adds for emphasis.
“One reason the Challenge has really taken off over the last few years is our ability to get highly successful UVA alumni to act as judges and investors, like Paul Tudor Jones (A&S ’76) (Tudor Investment Corporation), John Griffin (McIntire ’85) (Blue Ridge Capital), and Sonja Hoel Perkins (McIntire ’88) (Menlo Ventures, Broadway Angels). We have even had some non-UVA superstars like Stanford grad Baiju Bhatt, Co-Founder of Robinhood,” says Galant.
We spoke with founders from each team to learn about their pitches, their plans for their product, and what made the Galant Challenge such an impactful experience in their entrepreneurial journey.
Perfecting the Pitch
Before presenting at the Challenge, each of the teams readied their pitch to ensure it was in the best shape possible. Singh, CEO of Alfie Health, researched the investors’ backgrounds to get a feel for their expertise in healthcare and the market focused on obesity, and then tailored aspects of the pitch accordingly.
“We knew all investors have heard of the ‘wonder drug’ Ozempic,” Singh says, “however, most are unaware that more than one in three people don’t actually achieve results on the drug. A key piece of our story was showing investors how a precision medical approach addresses the shortcomings of one-size-fits-all approaches.”
Durst, CEO of Ask Alex, says a successful pitch all comes down to effective storytelling: “You are building a company from zero, and you need to make sure investors understand your customer pain, product, and vision for where you are heading.” While he doesn’t work from a script for his presentations, he focuses on a few key points and tells his story based on those highlights.
Piper, CEO of Luminoah, and UVA Children’s Hospital Hematology/Oncology Family Advisory Network volunteer, crafted a compelling narrative based on his company’s purpose, solution to a problem, the market opportunity, its regulatory path, intellectual property, and the team behind it. “We firmly believe in the importance of the ‘five Ps’: product, patents, pathway, plan, and people. While a great idea can transform a market, it’s the right team, driven by the right motivation and executing the right strategy, that ultimately determines a company’s success,” he says.
For Smith, CEO of College Contact, and her co-founder, the Challenge was the first experience pitching live to real investors; they spent many meetings refining their presentation. “The biggest pieces of feedback we received from our advising team were related to changing our tone, language, and materials to be ‘investor ready,’” she says, pointing out that they learned to convey confidence through assertive language, and by demonstrating their company’s customer traction and other quantitative metrics the investors would be interested in seeing. “We practiced so extensively that my college roommate jokes that she knew the entire pitch and could have filled in for me if something happened!”
Kyle Van Decker, CEO of Spark Car Wash, identified the foundational items that were critical for understanding his business, and then built a cohesive story from those elements. “The most important thing to realize is that the pitch itself is not a test; it is the introduction to a much deeper conversation,” he says. “For that introduction to be effective, it needs to take everything you know to be important about the business and distill it down to a more basic level. It needs to be digestible for someone who is likely learning about the company, market, and opportunity for the first time.”
Van Decker believes that the most compelling element of his business and his pitch lies in the combination of the large underlying market that exists—and Spark’s singular capacity for taking advantage of it. “In venture, there is a concept of an ‘earned secret.’ The general idea is that some individuals have a unique insight or ability to execute in a given area based on their specific experience set or other differentiated circumstance,” he says, explaining that their approach to asset development is tailored specifically to their region (around the greater New York/New Jersey area) and enabled by his team’s particular experience.
For Piper, his company’s founding story offers a direct and heartfelt commitment from his own life that surely resonates with anyone who hears it. “Luminoah was born out of a personal need that hit very close to home. In 2019, my three-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer, and our family saw firsthand how antiquated the current feeding tube system is—requiring children to live a sedentary lifestyle while attached to cumbersome equipment and with inability to share data effectively with their physician,” he says. “As a result, we assembled a team of experienced professionals from some of the most successful companies in diabetes care, spine care, and software development to build the world’s first truly portable, connected tube feeding system.”
Regarding their respective ventures, both Singh and Durst point to traction as an impactful and engaging aspect of success for the Challenge judges. Singh’s Alfie Health has partnered with cardiology clinics, identified a competitive go-to-market strategy, and is helping cardiologists and other specialty physicians address patient obesity. “We’re able to drive significant patient health outcomes in addition to purely financial ones,” he says.
“Traction is always appealing to investors because they want to see early signs of customer love and desire for your product,” says Durst, noting that Ask Alex’s capitalization table boasts some preeminent investors from across the country. “Village Global is our lead investor, and they’re backed by some of the largest names in industry: Bill Gates, Magic Johnson, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Reid Hoffman, and more. We’re also backed by the Andreessen Horowitz Scout Fund, Goodwater Capital, Trousdale Ventures, and many more. I think investors are always excited to join a cap table with strong names.”
Smith found that her student success stories, customer testimonial metrics, and placement rates held a great deal of sway. But like Singh and Durst, she admits that that their “strong customer traction points that showed demand didn’t hurt either!”
Investing in Their Goals
With the money raised, each of the founders has specific plans for how they aim to advance their companies. Singh’s priorities lie in additional development of Alfie Health’s AI capabilities; growing their sales; and supporting clinics in the Virginia, Maryland, and DC area to provide patients with obesity management services. “We’re open to connecting with former and current Hoos who may be affiliated with specialty practices. They can reach out directly to email@example.com,” he adds.
Durst is employing the capital to add engineering resources and accelerate product development, as Ask Alex already has many customers, merchants, and others eager to use their product. Van Decker says that Spark Car Wash has “very specific, ambitious goals for growing the company in a profitable manner. We have charted out a clear plan to achieve those goals in partnership with Challenge judge David Zusman (McIntire ’97), who serves as a hands-on strategic investor.” The investment from the Challenge will allow them to execute on that plan. Piper’s Luminoah insists that the financial support received from the event played a pivotal role in securing the company’s Series A investment, which has been instrumental in advancing product development, pushing them closer to FDA clearance, accelerating research and development, expanding their team, and better navigating the regulatory process.
At College Contact, Smith says the seed round funds are being employed to expand access to their services for school districts and customers across the country, grow their team, increase marketing reach, and release the next version of their product—a development that will allow for better data collection and personalization for its customers.
“Since Galant, we have been able to expand our internal team to four full-time employees, as well as strategic advisers and 100-plus college student contractors on our platform,” she says. “We have already served over 450 students this year alone and were able to implement a full rebrand with new UX/UI, which has significantly increased our user experience and directly impacted our ROI.”
That ability to leap forward to their business’s next stage has been the direct result of participating in the Challenge.
“The opportunity to pitch live in front of investors; my professors, friends, and family; and the broader Charlottesville startup community was an experience that many undergraduate founders do not get to experience while still in college,” Smith says. In preparing to fundraise, she and her co-founder learned and refined their presenting skills and more.
“Overall, what I enjoyed most was just how eye-opening the experience was as a young entrepreneur. I had the ability to see other founders who are further down the line from us excel at their pitches, network with them, and ask them questions about their own processes. It was overall just an inspiring event that only strengthened my determination to make College Contact an ‘edtech unicorn.’”
While taking part in the event offered both Singh and Durst a chance to reconnect with colleagues, Durst was taken aback: “Nostalgia hit me because I was presenting in front of old professors and advisers from my time at McIntire. I remember taking a near impossible financial accounting test in the very room I presented in. Full circle.”
Piper found the Challenge valuable and inspiring for many reasons, including the chance to interact with other entrepreneurs and hear about Galant’s entrepreneurial journey firsthand: “It provided valuable lessons and fueled our determination to make a positive impact on the world. The palpable energy and collective brilliance of the entrepreneurship community at UVA further affirmed our belief in the power of innovation to shape a better future.”
Van Decker also enjoyed engaging with the community and what it represented for the greater UVA entrepreneurship landscape that the Galant Center helps to foment. “The judges, fellow founders, hosts from the University, and everyone else who attended the event were incredible,” he says. “I really appreciated getting to know each person, while seeing the energy and support for the organization from alumni. It is truly a special ecosystem.”
Durst noted that beyond facilitating financial investments, Galant also stays involved by providing ongoing strategic insights and extends the same courtesy to all founders who take part in the challenge.
“As a founder, it’s important to remain focused on your vision and the problem you want to solve while also taking proper feedback,” Durst says. “I speak with Mark Galant often and it’s helpful to hear strategies I can use when it comes to sales, negotiation, and driving home contracts. I’ve stayed in contact with Mark consistently, and he understands our business, which is why I appreciate his feedback and advice.”
Eric Martin, the Galant Bicentennial Fellow, Galant Center Director, and co-founder of the Galant Challenge, says the amount of funding in the past two years is staggering for a university program, but not unplanned. “Mark Galant and I began work several years ago to raise the visibility of the Galant Challenge through substance—by attracting significantly superior, investment-worthy startups back to Charlottesville,” he says. “The strategy worked and led to the participation we have gotten from world-class investors over the last three years.” Martin adds that the growing success of the Challenge “is only possible because of Mark and Cindy and their amazing support for the program.”
The next collection of startup teams will meet to present on Thursday, April 25, at the 2024 edition of the Galant Challenge. It promises to be another exhilarating event that features some exciting new twists and further solidifies the UVA community’s prominent standing as a dedicated champion of inventive entrepreneurship.