Foxtrot maps a route to winner’s circle at MIT $100K Pitch contest

Top prize goes to a team aiming to optimize truck routes

November 19, 2014


The winning team, Foxtrot Systems, took home $5,000 at the MIT $100K Pitch contest

The first of the three parts that make up the annual MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, the $100K Pitch competition celebrates the art of the one-minute business pitch. Selected from a field of 150 entries in seven business sector categories, the 21 teams in the finale made their pitches before an overflow crowd and a panel of judges on the MIT campus.

Competing teams are judged on the potential of their business ideas and the effectiveness of their delivery. The Pitch portion of the competition is designed for projects in the idea stage. Some entrants pitched concepts only weeks old, emerging from September’s t=0 hackathon or classes at MIT. Others are further along, with existing prototypes or paying customers. The next phases of the $100K, Accelerate and Launch, require developed business plans.

Foxtrot Systems, founded by brothers Doug and Patrick Coughran, took the $5,000 grand prize with a pitch promising the advantages of truck route optimization to businesses with fewer than 50 vehicles. While companies like FedEx and UPS spend millions devising the best routes and traffic practices to maximize efficiency for their massive fleets, the pair said, that information is proprietary and unavailable to smaller operations.

“Over the past two years, here at MIT we’ve developed an algorithm to help small and medium-sized businesses optimize their delivery routes,” said Doug Coughran, an undergraduate at MIT majoring in mechanical engineering.

On the potential market, Patrick Coughran, a computer science student at Tufts University, noted that 60 percent of the fleets in the United States have 50 vehicles or fewer and “together spend $8 billion on unnecessary driving.”

The brothers conducted extensive interviews with smaller companies including commercial laundries, florists, and sandwich shops. In addition to wasted driving time and fuel costs, they recognized the potential for reducing carbon emissions by cutting road time.

“I thought it was a crime they had no delivery logistics,” Doug Coughran said, noting that for these smaller firms, much route planning was done on paper without any real-time traffic information.

Foxtrot already has a paying client in Harpoon Brewery. The founders plan to put their prize money toward new hires in sales and software development and continuing to build case studies to demonstrate potential savings to fleet managers.

The $2,000 Audience Choice Award, decided through text message voting by attendees, was also fuel-related. Fuel Drop, devised by a trio of MIT Leaders for Global Operations students, aims to bring the filling station to the busy urban driver by delivering a full tank of gasoline. Gearing up to launch a pilot program in January, co-founder Josh Jensen, LGO ’16, said the prize money would help to retrofit a pickup truck with a 1,000 gallon tank to begin deliveries.

The $2,000 second place winner was AquaFresco, whose founders have developed a water filter that can recycle 95 percent of wastewater from commercial-scale laundry operations at hotels. The $1,000 third prize went to TVision Insights, a company that is already showing a profit in Japan with an offering that uses Xbox technology to collect television viewers’ demographic information, viewing habits, and reactions to programs and advertisements.

Lessons from HubSpot

Dharmesh Shah, SF ’06, co-founder and chief technology officer of Cambridge-based HubSpot and one of the evening’s judges, delivered a keynote during the finale. HubSpot was born at MIT Sloan in 2006, and Shah and co-founder Brian Halligan, SF ’05, participated in the MIT $100K when the grand prize was $50,000. Shah talked about the early days of launching a startup, including one of the most basic of early questions: “Do I need a co-founder?”

“My short answer is ‘Yes,’” Shah said, “If you don’t have a co-founder, as you talk to other team members or potential investors if you go off to raise capital, the immediate thought that goes through their heads … is ‘You couldn’t get one other person to join you on this thing?’”

“You come off as a crazy person,” Shah said. “And it’s okay to actually be a crazy person, but you don’t want to come off that way.”

“The co-founders you want to find are the ones with complementary skills and overlapping values,” Shah said. “You care about the same kinds of things, and have overlapping goals in terms of what you want to pull off.”

“This seems like an obvious thing, but the reality is that lots of founding teams actually don’t,” he said. “One of the leading causes of death among startups is co-founder conflict.”

Shah advised the entrepreneurs in the audience to ask a series of questions to ensure compatible goals. Among them, “If someone offered us $10 million a year to sell, two years down the road, would you take it?”

Applications for the next phase of the $100K, Accelerate, are open through Nov. 28. During the Accelerate phase, teams present a demo of their concept in action, through prototypes, customer research, or pilots.