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Duke senior wins $5k in ACC startup contest

President Richard Brodhead demonstrates Neurospire, a device that can record a user’s reaction to advertising.
President Richard Brodhead demonstrates Neurospire, a device that can record a user’s reaction to advertising.

Representatives from almost every member of the Atlantic Coast Conference gathered in downtown Durham for a different kind of March Madness Wednesday.

The Startup Madness competition brought 19 student teams from across 10 ACC schools—all but the University of Maryland—to the American Tobacco Campus to compete for a number of cash prizes. Duke junior Jake Stauch won first place out of the North Carolina schools for his neuro-marketing company Neurospire. A collaborative health care logistics startup from University of Miami, won the overall prize.

Stauch said he created Neurospire through independent research, with the help of a Dutch software developer. The product records brainwaves as subjects experience different forms of advertising and converts the raw data into measurable information that companies can use. The project won one of the competition’s $5,000 prize.

With Neurospire, companies can compare consumer reactions to various marketing campaigns and predict which campaigns will be successful, Stauch said. He is currently licensing the product out to marketing research firms in the Triangle area.

Scott Kelly, local investment banker and the event’s creator and host, said the competition brought awareness to the burgeoning startup community throughout the Atlantic region.

“These are the best of the best,” Kelly said. “These are real companies rather than business plans­—for the most part these companies have bootstrapped their ideas and went past the business plan and actually executed [them].”

The competing teams came from both undergraduate and graduate schools and offered a diverse range of products and services.

“You have companies that are growing mushrooms… along with web applications, health care devices, medical devices and others,” Kelly said, noting the broad spectrum of entrants.

Mushroom Mountain, a company presented by a Clemson University married couple Tradd and Olga Cotter won second place overall. It was the only agricultural startup at the event.

Building off of their existing cultivation business, in which one Petri dish sample is used to produce up to 1 million pounds of fungi, the couple created Mushroom Mountain to explore how different mushrooms can be used in various industries. The Cotters are currently researching a fungus that may put a dent in the chemical pesticide industry because it acts as a bio-pesticide to fire ants, Tradd Cotter said.

Some of the business’ other fungal strands have been proven to have anti-viral or anti-bacterial properties, and some have been integrated into micro-brewed beer. Judges and visitors at Startup Madness were able to sample the medicinal beer throughout the event.

A Duke alumnus also appeared at the competition, showcasing a future step in the toy industry. Tom Giedgowd, Trinity ’05 and second-year student at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, showcased the Tee Gee—a “smart stuffed animal” powered through a parent’s iPhone or iPod Touch.

“It plays games, it sings songs, it tells stories, and it grows up alongside a child based on different age-appropriate apps,” Giedgowd said.

The brightly-colored monkeys incorporate speech, voice recognition and motion sensors and interact with “smart” accessories such as toy bananas, swords and juice boxes. When a juice box is removed quickly, for example, the stuffed animal immediately responds: “I’m still thirsty!”

Durham and the Triangle area are perfect for an event such as Startup Madness, Kelly said.

“We love college basketball, but we also love startups,” he said. “We enjoy the energy associated with them... and we look forward to sharing that with the world.”

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