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Leif Ullman, addresses the crowd on Pitch Night.

Startup accelerator Exponential Impact’s Pitch Night returned in-person May 20 after a year-plus hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

XI hosted a virtual audience as well, to encourage as much feedback as possible for the three presenting startups. At other XI events such as Demo Days, there is an emphasis on targeting investors, winning over new customers and outshining competing startup presenters. This Pitch Night was more about feedback.

“I think that in the earliest stages, what is most valuable is feedback rather than a $500 check and a winner,” said Rachel Beisel, a marketing technologist and one of Pitch Night’s organizers. “I would love to see all of those companies succeed. The community itself can give feedback and help them hone their ideas and you get three to five companies that go on and build our ecosystem — as opposed to just one winner and potentially discourage the rest from even trying.”

The three startups presented vastly different ideas. Beaconox uses a lighting technology to push track workout performance; PatentBooks aims to revolutionize the world of patent licensing; and Drone Sports LLC is betting on drone soccer as a “gateway drug” to STEM careers for high school students.

Natasha Main, XI’s executive director, said Pitch Night is a great entry into the startup community for new entrepreneurs.

“It’s low pressure. I mean, public speaking is always intimidating for some but this is not about a competition,” Main said. “There’s no kind of prize at the end and it is absolutely about just getting your name out there in a comfortable environment.”

TAILORING THE PITCH

Kyle Sanders, co-founder of Drone Sports LLC and VP of education and development at U.S. Drone Soccer, is teaching high school kids to build and repair drones for team soccer — and still honing his pitch.

In the rapidly-expanding robotics domain, Sanders is looking to demonstrate to investors the market need for Drone Sports’ services amidst the “convoluted” educational system. 

The question, he says, is “Can I translate why this is such an opportunity … to somebody who knows nothing about drones or aerospace or anything?” The usual response is, “‘I don’t get it — you’re doing stuff for kids. Are you a nonprofit?’” he said. “No. Robotics competitions are huge and somebody has to make the drones. Someone has to write the curriculum. We partner with nonprofits but somebody has to do the work. There’s so much investment in technical education and career recruitment — the airlines are reaching all the way down to high school now to begin developing students down the pilot path, aircraft mechanic path.”

Drone Sports stands apart from most ventures in the field because it’s focusing on service and a product as opposed to an app, Sanders said, but “we feel confident in what we’re doing. [We’ve] just got to figure out how to simplify it.” 

While Pitch Night is usually for early-stage startups, it can also be a boost for those moving to the next level and scaling operations. For example, Drone Soccer is already in XI’s more advanced Amplify program and participated in Pitch Night, Main said, “because they want the community to know more about what they’re doing and be aware of that.”

A combat-related injury forced Sanders to retire as an Air Force pilot at 32, and he became an Air Force flight instructor. He was the director of the Arkansas STEM Fest at the Little Rock Air Force Base Airshow in 2018 and invited drone racing organizations to exhibit. Sanders was excited by what he saw and believed that drones could become a tool to teach STEM skills. While there were several issues with developing a drone racing program for high schools, there was one major problem Sanders immediately identified: Cost.

“It’s extremely expensive,” Sander said. “It’s insanely difficult. There is no standardization or explanation of the markets or products at all. And there’s no community to bring in new pilots and train them.”

That’s when Sanders got into drone soccer. He sees it as a way to address many of the difficulties involved with bringing a drone sports program into schools.

“It takes place inside a netted arena so it’s safe and exempt from [Federal Aviation Administration] restrictions,” Sanders said. “The drones are fully open source and students can take them completely apart and put them completely back together. So we’re not trying to repurpose toys; we’re a custom built product for schools. It’s really what they need to practice real world skills.”

Drones often require expensive tools and equipment to build and repair. Sanders said his team worked really hard to keep the price as low as possible. One student can repair a single drone from Sanders’ team with just one hex driver. He believes this ease of repair and inexpensive design will empower kids to learn with confidence.

“That’s the problem with all these expensive drones on the market — it’s intimidating and you crash it once and it’s broken,” Sanders said. “That’s not what this is. These are designed for crashing.”

BECOMING MAINSTREAM

Startup groups were the first organizations Beisel contacted when she first moved to the Springs, to get involved in the community. 

When she was first involved in pitching, “I was an employee at a startup, I had not had the gall to start my own business yet,” she recalls. “And I had to see it and experience it first as an employee and see the community support to even get brave enough to try.”

Now she works with Chris Franz, Pioneer Fund managing director, and Leif Ullman, entrepreneur in residence, to run Springs Startup with the support of XI. Springs Startup provides new early-stage and community programming for founders and the startup ecosystem, covering the earliest, “idea to growth” phase of the startup journey.

And Beisel helps organize Pitch Night because she knows startups need community support in order to thrive.

“You don’t have to get it through the grapevine,” she said. “It [used to be] almost an underground thing to try to find startup participation, startup communities.”

Now, she said, the startup community is more mainstream.

“It seemed like it was this secret society before. Now when you’re in it, you realize that it’s not. Getting the message out is incredibly important: Anyone can participate in this, and I think [XI’s] Startup Week and Startup Weekend have done an amazing job around ... bringing back that startup and entrepreneurial system within the community and truly putting awareness around it.” 

The startup world is not easy and it’s not glamorous, Beisel said, but “it’s going to help bring jobs; it’s going to help bring economic impact; it’s going to help bring a sense of community.

“Entrepreneurship doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” she added. “There’s this total myth regarding the solo entrepreneur in the garage who does everything by themselves. ... Nobody ever does anything by themselves and that’s part of the reason why we’re doing this — Not only to share our successes but also to share our failures. We’ve probably failed many more times than experienced success.”

Justin Tate is a graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver. He got his start as a staff writer for the Balch Springs Sentinel in 2011 and has covered boxing for Bleacher Report and Fox News. He joined CPH in 2021.