EXCLUSIVE: First-ever Charlotte Veteran Startup Showcase awards $50k prize

Last week, nine veteran-led tech startups from across the Southeast came together for the first-ever CLT Veteran Startup Showcase, where they took the stage to compete for a purse worth $50,000.

A crowd of veterans, entrepreneurs and investors gathered at the Frontcourt Club in the Spectrum Center, where Mike Murphy, co-founder of Lake Norman-based ProctorFree, won over the panel of investor judges and secured the prize.

“This is an honor for several reasons: It will help our company grow. But it’s also good for veteran entrepreneurs to come together and collaborate,” said Murphy, whose company creates software to proctor online exams. “It’s good for our community, our economy and for us as individuals in the startup space.”

The event — which came together with support from StartCharlotte, the Charlotte Hornets, Levvel and Castle Digital Partners — was touted as a “showcase,” not a “pitch” event. That was intentional, said Brandon Shelton, a former Army officer and founder and managing partner of TFX Capital, an advisory and venture capital firm focused on growing seed and early stage veteran businesses and startups.

Each entrepreneur was given four minutes to present, instead of the more typical two. That presentation was followed by three minutes of Q&A with the panel of investor judges, who had opportunities to review each deck prior to the event. Those judges included David Jones, general partner with Bull City Venture Partners; Paul Grim, founder and general partner with SunBridge Capital Partners; John Cambier, a founding general partner at IDEA Fund Partners; and Kyle Teamey, principal at In-Q-Tel.

The goal, Shelton said, was to allow the judges to make a more informed decision and for investors to learn the particular strength of the veteran entrepreneur community.

“Less than 1 percent of the population serves in the military, yet veterans lead 10 percent of all small businesses,” Shelton said in a statement. ““This showcase was a way for us to show the power of networks, expertise and leadership with supporting veteran-led startups, especially here in a high-growth city like Charlotte.”

James Jordan, executive vice president of operations for Hornets Sports & Entertainment, kicked things off with remarks about his own military experience, and his belief in the veteran community as a whole.

“I spent 31 years in the military, and I know the drive and commitment it takes to serve your country,” Jordan said in a statement. “That’s what it takes to be successful as an entrepreneur, as well. You’ve got to put your heart into it and give it everything you’ve got. I saw that in all the entrepreneurs who presented at the Veteran Startup Showcase.”

In addition to ProctorFree, the following startups presented at the event:

The veteran entrepreneur community is close-knit. Several of the entrepreneurs had pitched together at previous events, and although $50,000 was at stake, the collective vibe was one of support rather than competition.

“Every time, I’ve pitched at something veteran-related, the talent is top notch, the ideas are super well-vetted, and I think we’re all trying to tackle really hard problems,” said Krissa Watry, an Air Force veteran and co-founder of Dynepic.

John Dillard, of ThreatSwitch, agreed.

“These are folks who have been through some stuff,” said Dillard, a former Navy intelligence officer. “Going through that creates a community that understands each other, and that’s a critical underlying ingredient of success.”

The investors on the panel were already well-acquainted with the power of the veteran entrepreneur community.

Grim, of Sunbridge Capital Partners, said one of his past investments was in a company run by a Navy vet. That company sold to Qualcomm for $800 million.

“I buy into Brandon’s thesis that veterans have skill sets that make them really good entrepreneurs,” Grim said.

Cambier, of IDEA Fund Partners, said one of the benefits of military experience is that everything in the military is done at scale. As a result, veteran entrepreneurs are more likely to build something that will scale.

“As early-stage investors, that’s where we see companies at this stage fall off the rails,” Cambier said.

Proceeds from the event went to Charlotte Bridge Home, a local nonprofit serving the veteran community in Charlotte.