Published on Charlottesville Tomorrow
The youngest-ever entrants to the Tom Tom Founders Festival’s Crowd-funded Pitch Night took home the event’s top honor Wednesday night. Clara Duffy and Leela Ghaemmaghami, juniors at St. Anne’s-Belfield School, started Seniors Connect to help older people use and understand technology. They also are writing an app called Doctor’s Orders to help seniors remember which medications to take and when. The event was emceed by Charlottesville City Councilor and Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy. Duffy and Ghaemmaghami won their choice of either $4,360 in funding generated by the audience, or a coveted spot at the i.Lab at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “Our grandparents were calling us up all the time for help with their Facebook accounts,” Duffy said. “And then we realized that there were 7,000-plus other seniors in the area that might need help, too.” The pair, who have been in business since December of 2014, said they have not decided whether to take the money or the i.Lab spot. “The i.Lab sounds super-duper attractive, but we have to figure out if those dates would work with our travel schedules and testing — junior year to senior year is really chaotic,” Duffy said. The i.Lab program runs for 10 weeks from June to August. The next step of the project will be a push to provide free computers to the elderly.
“Our outreach program is going to be to get more computers to lower-income senior citizens across Charlottesville,” Ghaemmaghami said. Festival Director Paul Beyer praised Ghaemmaghami and Duffy for starting at such an early age. “They’re leaders in their schools, and then being able to come and present to the whole community is just a really special thing for them,” he said. “The single biggest thing about this pitch night is that entrepreneurship is not one size fits all. You saw people tonight that had all different backgrounds and all different ages.” Second place went to Ewa Harr and her company Little Planets, which makes nature-inspired eco-friendly play spaces for children at festivals and outdoor events. Harr won a scholarship to the Community Investment Collaborative to work on her idea. “It’s completely amazing,” Harr said. “There were so many fantastic ideas, really, just amazing people.” Harr applied to the CIC previously, but was waitlisted. “It’s really exciting to have the opportunity. I have just heard wonderful things about them,” she said. Harr’s playscapes will be on display at the Tom Tom festival’s block parties this weekend, she said, and a host of other festivals over the summer. “The goal is to be able to do it at more events,” she said. “Sometimes they will be smaller, local events, sometimes at bigger national events.” Seniors Connect and Little Planets won out over eight other pitches, which ranged from a magazine celebrating entrepreneurship to a fully automated marijuana growing operation powered by a smartphone app. After the 10 pitches, audience members paid $10 each for voting tokens. Gray Ogden placed her token in the box for CloudGrow, the automated and self-contained marijuana farm. “I have a medicinal interest in marijuana,” she said. “It has its use medicinally and works quite well for certain conditions.” CloudGrow, the brainchild of Alan Wei, is a heated and lighted box in which marijuana seeds are planted. The box is connected to the internet via an app, and changes lighting and makes suggestions about caring for the plants based on information available online. The app is designed to continually gather information from its users, which will expand its database, Wei said. “They use it with cataracts and they use it with glaucoma and with cancer patients,” Ogden said of medicinal marijuana. “White papers have come out and said it is beneficial.” Ogden qualified that her enthusiasm for the system is based on the assumption that marijuana cultivation eventually will be legal. Wednesday was the first pitch night to be held at the Paramount Theater, a move Beyer said improved the evening’s atmosphere. “The fifth Crowd-funded Pitch Night was, I think, an unqualified success,” he said. “The venue and the setting was such that we were able to really focus on the pitches themselves, and the vice mayor brought a great energy to the evening.”