pitch olympics

A panel of potential investors ranked entrepreneurs' pitches during the Elevator Pitch Olympics at the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium on Thursday.


Two years ago, John Whitcomb saw something on the 10 o’clock news about concussions that spurred the idea for his now award-winning fledgling startup.

Whitcomb, who won the “Rising Star” award on Thursday at the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium, an annual startup-focused event in Madison, has invented a technology that he says make helmets more effective at preventing concussions.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, why hasn’t somebody done something’ — so I went on the (U.S.) patent website and couldn’t find anything and, by 4 o’clock in the morning, I had a patent,” he said.

(Whitcomb, whose business is called Whitcomb Technologies, later clarified that there was some back-and-forth with the U.S. Patent Office regarding his technology, so it really took about three months to secure the patent for his work.)

“I came here to this conference looking for help, and that’s what I found,” Whitcomb said. “There’s lots of exciting stuff going on and lots of energy in this conference. It’s really thrilling to be part of it.”

Whitcomb was one of 17 participants in the startup symposium’s Elevator Pitch Olympics event, which offered entrepreneurs the chance to give a 90-second pitch for their business in front of a panel of potential investors, who scored their pitch and offered constructive criticism.

In a style that was reminiscent of the reality television competition “Dancing With the Stars,” judges held up cards ranking each presentation on a scale of 1-5 and offered feedback ranging from “I just couldn’t figure out what (the business) was” to “You made a really compelling case why this is important.”

Like Wednesday’s pitching event at the symposium, the Wisconsin Angel Network Investors’ Track, which offered entrepreneurs five minutes to pitch their business, the Elevator Pitch Olympics featured businesses running the gamut of industry.

There were health care companies, including Nobo, which monitors an individual’s hydration level through a wearable device, and Kurbi, which provides activity options for individuals living with chronic conditions, as well as e-commerce apps (Stocket, a “shopping game” where users can manage their own online store) and software meant to help auto insurance companies track driver behavior (Telematic).

IotaMotion, an Iowa-based health care company that has developed a cochlear ear implant technology, came in second Whitcomb Technologies in the competition, based on judges’ scores.

“Madison’s been a great place and a very startup-friendly area,” said Chris Kaufmann, president of iotaMotion. “I feel like, in the Midwest in general, this is one of the key places to go.”

Overall, judges for the Elevator Pitch Olympics seemed pleased with the cohort of startups before them.

“I love this event and I love the fresh approach all of you bring,” Bob Wood, co-manager of Wisconsin Investment Partners, an angel investment firm, told participants.

Judge Laura King of Golden Angels Investors, a Brookfield-based investment firm, said the entrepreneurial environment in Wisconsin in recent years is better than it’s ever been.

“When you think about the number of ideas that are generated now, compared to a generation ago, and the ability of people to create things and go to market … you used to have to be inside a big company,” she said. “The advantage has really moved to the entrepreneur in the past few years.”

The Elevator Pitch Olympics was the final event at the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium, so entrepreneurs will now scatter, returning to their corners of the state (and region) to continue developing their businesses.

As for Whitcomb, he’s looking forward to moving on from the Elevator Pitch Olympics competition, armed with a new sense of purpose as he looks to fill out his leadership team for Whitcomb Technologies.

“I’m humbled,” Whitcomb said of his “Rising Star” recognition. “It’s like the bar has been raised.”