There’s a new March Madness happening this month — and it’s not the popular US collegiate basketball tournament. That event, like many others, was canceled earlier this month for the first time in 82 years due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
This version of March Madness has participants competing from the comfort of their own couches – and not in a basketball tournament. This March Madness is a live online startup competition hosted from Israel. It begins next week and will feature pitches from startups across the globe.
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The competition was founded by the Jerusalem-based team at Ground Up Ventures, an early-stage VC firm that invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups in the United States and Israel.
“Corona[virus] has made this a very difficult time for startups to fundraise,” the event’s organizers say. “There are no face-to-face meetings, no startup conferences, and VCs are distracted by juggling work-from-home while homeschooling their kids and helping their existing portfolio companies avoid collapse.”
Since last weekend when the application process began, pre-seed and seed-stage startups that have raised between $200,000 to $2 million have been invited to apply to the March Madness competition. So far at least 110 companies from around the world have applied, including startups from the US, Canada, Colombia, Ireland, Sweden, South Africa, and Australia. David Stark, founder and general partner at Ground Up Ventures tells NoCamels that Israeli companies make up a third of those that have applied so far.
He says the live broadcasts will be “like Shark Tank meets The Voice.”
Similar to the March Madness basketball competition, which includes 32 Division I conference championship winners who receive a bid to the NCAA tournament, 32 pre-seed or seed-stage startups will be chosen to pitch to judges and audience members at home who register to attend the online event over the course of a few live sessions. The first round of pitches begins next Wednesday, April 1.
Just as a selection committee for the NCAA tournament is responsible for keeping track of the teams that move on to the next round, a selection committee comprised of global investors from US and Israeli firms such as Bessemer Venture Partners, Battery Ventures, Homebrew, and Ludlow Ventures has signed on to be part of the judging panels. They will also be the ones asking startup founders and team members those hard-hitting questions after their pitches.
“These special VCs are dedicating their time to this event because they recognize the importance of being there for the entrepreneurial community as founders figure out how to navigate these new waters,” the team at Ground Up said.
Shiran Shalev, a principal at the global, tech-focused investment firm Battery Ventures tells NoCamels it’s important for both startups and investors to participate in this kind of event. “More so than ever, now is the time for investors to roll up their sleeves and help entrepreneurs think around corners as we navigate unprecedented – but surmountable – challenges ahead,” he said.
Stark explained that when Ground Up was coming up with the March Madness concept, they imagined the NCAA grid used to highlight every Division I team, which would then be split into brackets based on winners of each session like the basketball tournament.
In the startup competition, the first round will consist of four brackets of eight companies. From there, the judges will choose the companies that will advance to the “Final Four” (as they are referred to during the basketball tournament.) The audience will also have the opportunity to vote on two more out of the remaining 28 companies that will join them. Six companies will pitch against each other in the final event.
Ground Up Venture plans to invest $100,000 in the winner of the competition, with some added corporate perks for runners-up.
Some of the Israeli startups that have already applied to the competition include Lynx.MD, a cloud-based health data science platform; buywith, an AI-powered platform that uses big data insights to generate marketing tools and enables eCommerce shoppers to consult with friends and family using screen-sharing, text, and video chat; and Trusstor, a Tel Aviv-based command and control system for construction projects.
“In times like these, one of the biggest challenges for startup companies is getting exposure to investors. Ground Up Ventures and their startup competition made this limitation into an amazing opportunity,” said Omri Sorek, CEO and founder of Trusstor.
“The March Madness startup competition is the perfect opportunity to give back to the founder community. While many founders quickly adapt to a new reality, we are excited to give them the opportunity to get in front of some of the world’s best investors all from the comfort of their own home. Despite the physical distance that may be between us, now is the time for VCs and founders to be closer together and more engaged, not further apart,” says Stark.
The deadline for applications is Friday, March 27, and companies are invited to apply on the competition’s official website.