MIT Sloan alumni, students win Startup Showdown at MIT Venture Capital Conference

December 12, 2012

Delightfully co-founder Jason Shin, MBA ’13, pitches his company at the MIT Venture Capital Conference

Delightfully co-founder Jason Shin, MBA ’13, pitches his company at the MIT Venture Capital Conference

Gradeable, an early-stage company developing an app for teachers to grade student papers and track the results, won the Startup Showdown Competition, held at the 15th annual MIT Venture Capital Conference Dec. 8 at the MIT Media Lab.

Parul Singh, MBA ’12, Gradeable’s co-founder and CEO, said MIT Sloan’s professors and alumni helped her and her colleagues develop and nurture their innovative company from a concept to a business ready to pitch before an audience of leading investors.

“Everyone at Sloan is willing to help and give us feedback—that’s been invaluable to us,” Singh said. “We’re only six months old, and that’s what helped us get from idea to product in that short period of time.”

In the Startup Showdown, 10 early-stage companies, including companies led by MIT and MIT Sloan students, were pitted against each other. Each company had one minute to make an elevator pitch to an audience of angel investors, venture capitalists, and MIT community members. Then, team members showcased their products at tables set up in an exhibit hall, where attendees could ask questions before voting for three finalists. Those finalists then had five minutes to demonstrate their startups in front of a panel of celebrity judges. The winner took home $400.

Gradeable’s app turns a smartphone or iPad into a grading tool, and targets a business opportunity created by increased focus on student assessment data. By scanning homework, teachers reduce the time spent grading homework, which Singh also contends contributes to a high teacher attrition rate that costs the education profession.

Judge Jennifer Jordan, a vice president at the state’s venture capital arm, MassVentures, explained Gradeable won because “we all understand the problem of grading papers.”

Jordan, who has mentored entrepreneurs through Springboard and the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, was one of four judges during the final round. Marc Ecko, founder and chief creative officer of Marc Ecko Enterprises, Michael Fox, a member of the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, and Santo Politi, founder and general partner of Spark Capital, also judged.

“The purpose of the conference is to bring both venture capitalists and entrepreneurs together,” said Andrew Tran, MBA ’14, one of five Startup Showdown organizers.

For the finalists, Tran said the competition puts students before venture capitalists who ask tough questions, give good advice, and help an entrepreneur improve their pitch and their product.

“These are the same kind of questions they’d be asked if it weren’t on stage,” Tran said, “and if you can’t win these VCs over, they’ll let you know how to improve your answer.”

MIT Sloan students led companies comprising this year’s runner-ups.

Sodium Energy, which placed second, developed a sodium ion battery it hopes will help utilities provide greater stability to the world’s electric power grid.

Co-founder Kevin Berkemeyer said he was attracted by the school’s unique balance of engineering talent and business know-how.

“MIT Sloan is one of the best business schools in the world and one of the best engineering technology schools in the world,” Berkemeyer said. “The intersection between the two is truly powerful.”

Delightfully, which placed third, devised a way for online gift-givers to thoughtfully “gift-wrap” their purchases with personal messages and photos.

“MIT Sloan has opened up so many doors and resources,” said co-founder Jason Shin, MBA ’13. “It brings down barriers to conversation and gives you tremendous resources that otherwise would [require] a much longer, painful road.”