De vier winnende start-ups (c) Nathalie Duin

Not one, but four start-ups will travel to the Draper University in San Mateo, California this summer. They won the finals of the Draper’s Silicon Summer Pitch Prize. While there, the winners will take part in the Draper University Hero Training. A five-week crash course in entrepreneurship. They will also be housed on the campus, attend several workshops, meet experts, and connect with other start-ups and investors in the US. “The experiences and knowledge that they will gain there are absolutely priceless,” is something that Sven Bakkes of Lumo Labs is well aware of. He organizes this competition together with Draper University and Braventure.

‘More winners than losers’

Six start-ups have now put their best foot forward to convince the judges to send them to Silicon Valley. On stage, Buster Franken and Sako Arts of Fruitpunch AI are grinning with pride; they have just been named winners of the Draper’s Silicon Summer Pitch Prize. All of a sudden, Andy Lurling from Lumo Labs walks on stage. He explains that Draper University was so impressed with the level of pitches today that they invited three more finalists in addition to Fruitpunch AI. “We host these kinds of pitch competitions all over the world,” a video link from the U.S. announces. “But what we saw today really amazed us. You should all be proud of what you have accomplished in such a short time.”

Read more about Fruitpunch AI here.

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A cry of amazement erupts among the participants in the auditorium. Because Hable One (braille keyboard for smartphones), Roseman Labs (technology that analyzes sensitive data without actually sharing that data) and Loop Robots (autonomous cleaning robot with UV light) can also get ready for a trip to American which is worth about 12,000 euros. The other two finalists, Unpluq (a physical phone plug to reduce screen time), and Alphabeats (de-stressing through neurofeedback with your own music) missed out on the prizes this year.

Read more about Hable One here.

Deserted High Tech Campus

Inside the Conference Center of the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven, it is almost as if corona no longer exists. Almost, because when you enter, the vapors of disinfectant alcohol immediately penetrate your nose and the handful of people who are present keep their distance and most of them wear face masks. Outside, the campus is almost completely deserted. Except for a few solitary workers behind a computer, several forlorn bicycles and some random cars in the parking lots, the grounds are almost completely deserted.

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Roderick Rodenburg of Roseman Labs and the other participants (C) Nathalie Duin

Cast your mind away from all this, then picture yourself in a crowded spot and it’s almost like old times. “I’ll just keep pretending that there are 500 of us here,” says Job Nijs to the small group of attendees who are actually seated in the auditorium. He is director of Braventure, a company which helps start-ups in Brabant to grow. “No matter how small this may be, I feel energized to finally be in front of an audience again.”

The jury pored over 24 entries, and after an extensive online screening and review of the video pitches, they selected these six finalists. Now suddenly they are standing face to face with the judges. “Very nice that we can now see you live in person as well. Everyone has missed out on these kind of interactions,” says Dagmar van Ravenswaay Claasen on behalf of the jury. For the finalists, it has also been a while since they have stood in front of an audience. It takes some getting used to.

‘Don’t you believe in your own product?’

For although one of the later winners Freek van Welsenis of Hable One gets off to a shaky start, he recovers well with a personal story. Van Welsenis, who with Hable One, designed a special braille keyboard for visually impaired or blind smartphone users, addresses the jury directly. “My little brother and sister are both affected by disabilities. I have always wondered how I can make the world a better place for them. You can do that with technology. If you send us to Draper, we may not become the most successful company. But we are going to spread the message that we do need to use technology for a better world.”

But jury member Eline Vrijland-Van Beest, who sold her invention NightBalance to Philips in 2018 and is a frequent jury member at these kinds of competitions, is not immediately convinced. “Why wouldn’t you become the biggest company? Don’t you believe in your own product?”

Barrage of questions

The other finalists also face a barrage of questions from the judges. ‘How do you plan to stay ahead of your competition? Where will you get your money from? What does the business model look like? And what kind of investors are you looking for in America?’ Besides Dagmar van Ravenswaay-Claasen of Borski Fund, an investment fund that supports female founders, and Eline Vrijland-Van Beest, the jury is made up of:

According to Nijs, this five-member jury represents “perhaps a billion euros in investments.”

Live interaction

In the meantime, Mark van de Vrede from Loop Robots is on stage. He has no idea at that moment that he later will be one of the winners. Loop Robots is a Rotterdam start-up and develops autonomous cleaning robots that disinfect medical areas with the aid of UVC light. Van Vrede went on to explain to the jury how they plan to stay ahead of their competition. “Our biggest competitor relies on third parties to drive around autonomously. We are developing this ourselves and have patented an autonomous system. It can drive independently through a room, without having to be mapped beforehand.”

The story behind Loop Robots also appeals to Buster Franken of Fruitpunch AI. After finishing his own pitch and withstanding all of the jury’s questions, he then let it slip to Mark van de Vrede that he sees opportunities for collaborating on AI. The two give each other the thumbs up. Afterwards, Franken looks back on this moment: “You can only interact like that in real life, it doesn’t work digitally. It’s great that this kind of thing is slowly making a comeback. Especially when we go to the US. I’m really looking forward to that.”

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About the author

Author profile picture Milan Lenters is a writer and editor. Through IO, he got to know his native city Eindhoven in a different way and sometimes looks with amazement at the many stories that lie ahead.