Catalyst: Opening Doors & Creating Impact

Catalyst: Opening Doors & Creating Impact

Visionary female founders bring GIST's signature pitch competition to new heights

November 28, 2023

The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum is a singular opportunity for the exchange of economic priorities and practices at the highest level. What occurs at APEC events can have huge impacts on one of the most populated regions in the world, with nearly 3 billion people calling the APEC economies home. Against this backdrop, GIST brought together a very different Asia-Pacific group to convene in San Francisco for very similar purposes--to have lasting positive impact upon their respective economies. Sixteen visionary female founders from across APEC spent a week learning, exploring, and exchanging at the APEC Catalyst Pitch Competition held in partnership between GIST and the APEC Sustainable Futures Forum. 

By focusing on female founders, science and technology innovation, and climate resilience, GIST empowers and uplifts trailblazing innovators who are poised to reshape industries and inspire a future where diversity, innovation, and sustainability reign supreme. What follows is an account of this year’s cohort during the week they spent in San Francisco, the nexus of the startup movement. But more than that it is a celebration of their spirit and their abilities as truly impactful innovators.

The Importance of Understanding Your Customer

The program kicked off on Thursday, November 9, as a day packed with insights and hands-on experiences, marking the start of an exciting journey into Lean Innovation Methods–a pillar of the GIST Startup Training experience. After a quick overview of the events for the week,  the female founders took turns pitching their startup’s innovative solution to the group. It was here that the participants began to understand and appreciate each other’s unique perspectives and backgrounds and one of the goals of a Catalyst program began to materialize–the goal of exchange. 

As the day progressed, the focus shifted to the pivotal concepts of Customer Development and Business Model Generation. Attendees discovered the art of aligning their products or services with customer needs and learned to construct robust business models that stand the test of market dynamics. 

The latter part of the day saw a deep dive into the Best Practices for Customer Discovery, unraveling the secrets behind successful engagement with the target audience. Participants gleaned valuable insights into optimizing their approach to customer interactions for maximum impact.

If this all sounds more like a training experience than a traditional pitch competition, that’s because it is. One of Catalyst’s more innovative components is the training component. Participants do not just show up and pitch. Instead, they spend time listening to and learning from top U.S. training experts who help them improve their business models and thus improve their pitches.

In a hands-on exercise, participants embraced the "Get Out of the Building" mantra, engaging in customer interviews on the streets of San Francisco to apply their newfound knowledge in real-world scenarios. This practical experience allowed them to connect theory with practice, bringing what they had learned earlier in the day to bear and honing their skills in a live setting. The founders had to get especially creative in this exercise since many of their solutions necessitated very specific potential customers. Finding the right fit brought some of them to grocery stores, public transportation, and museums to conduct their interviews. 

The day concluded with a group dinner where the primary topic quickly became everyone’s tactics for finding potential customers, sharing successes that would help their cohort members in their own searches. Conversations flowed as ideas and experiences were shared, setting the stage for the further collaboration to come.

Challenging Your Assumptions

If Thursday did not jolt the participants with challenges to their business models and having to face customers on the street, Friday and Saturday ensured that no one was in their comfort zone for too long. Over the course of the two days , participants dove headfirst into a whirlwind of discovery, strategy, and real-world application. Venture development experts Rhonda Shrader, Annam Quraishi, and Josh Mandell led the deep dives, providing insight and support to each of the teams. 

Friday's exploration took participants through topics like Channel Economics, Revenue Models, and Market Discovery, each session combining an essential building block to the Lean method. The addition of office hours injected a personalized touch, offering teams one-on-one guidance to overcome specific challenges. The recurrent theme of "Get Out of the Building" sessions not only underscored the importance of real-world application but also showcased the adaptability of Lean Methods in action, improving interviews with real people and gaining truly meaningful insight into their venture development strategies.  Again, the resulting interviews provided great insights for the participants which were then incorporated back into their solutions.

Saturday amplified the momentum, kicking off with a comprehensive recap and report-out session that transformed the learning experience into a collaborative exchange of insights–meaning everyone got up out of their chairs for exercises in communicating about their customers. The strategic planning phase introduced teams to the art of crafting clear Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), aligning their efforts with overarching goals. Competitors and Ecosystem Mapping sessions unfolded as a valuable exploration of market dynamics, empowering teams to strategically position themselves. The return of office hours provided a final dose of personalized guidance, ensuring teams were well-equipped for the grand finale.

Also included in the day's learnings was a panel discussion between instructors Rhonda Shrader, Josh Mandell, and special guests Candice Delamarre (Co-Founder of Kitswitch), and Nicolas El Baze (General Partner at Partech). The discussion centered around the state of funding for startups and was followed by a question and answer session with the innovators.

The day culminated in a final "Get Out of the Building" session, putting the newly acquired skills to the test one last time. As the weekend wrapped up, participants emerged not only with a comprehensive understanding of Lean Innovation Methods but also with a toolkit ready for innovation in the ever-evolving business landscape. 

Creating Safer Work Environments

Sunday unfolded as a day dedicated to addressing critical issues and fostering meaningful dialogue. The morning workshops delved into pressing topics, fostered by gender expert Denisse Tiznado, beginning with a session on Sexual Exploitation in the Workplace. Participants engaged in a thought-provoking discussion, exploring strategies to create safer, more inclusive work environments. The subsequent workshop focused on intervention models, providing valuable insights into proactive approaches for addressing workplace challenges.

After a break, attention turned to the pervasive issue of online bullying in another engaging workshop. Participants gained practical knowledge on identifying and combating online harassment, contributing to a safer digital landscape.

Lunch featured a roundtable discussion with U.S. Department of State Deputy Assistant Secretary Rahima Kandahari. Attendees had the unique opportunity to exchange ideas, gaining perspectives from a key figure in government service.

In the afternoon, the focus shifted to storytelling and pitching sessions, where participants honed their communication skills. This interactive segment allowed for the exploration of compelling narratives and effective presentation techniques. The day reached its peak with Pitch Practice, providing a platform for participants to refine their pitches and receive constructive feedback for the finale. Sunday concluded as a day of both introspection and collaboration, empowering each of these visionary women founders.

Expanding Horizons

Monday brought two exciting events: a trip to NVIDIA HQ and the Pitch Semifinals, determining who would pitch at the finale! 

The day unfolded firstly with an immersive NVIDIA Innovation and Technology experience, providing a firsthand glimpse into cutting-edge advancements in the tech industry. The cohort piled into a bus for the thirty-minute drive south into the heart of Silicon Valley. With instructor Josh Mandell acting as a tour guide, the founders glued themselves to the windows for glimpses of local landmarks and tech giants. Arriving at the NVIDIA HQ the group was not disappointed. Just from an architectural perspective the building is a marvel featuring gravity-defying angles and immense cavernous spaces. For many of the GIST innovators, this was the first time to a large tech company’s headquarters. The sheer enormity and intention in the building was truly captivating. The founders were provided an exclusive tour of NVIDIA’s equally awe-inspiring next-generation hardware and software innovations from emerging tech like AI to state-of-the-art chip design–the future of tech literally unfolded before their eyes. NVIDIA’s technology, though, is both cutting edge and approachable, and the opportunity aligned perfectly with some of the founders’ existing solutions. In fact, those solutions were perfect examples of how AI computing can be used to combine the best of the latest science and tech with localized, indigenous knowledge. Not surprisingly, these solutions proved quite compelling in the latter part of the day at the semifinals event.

The excitement peaked in the afternoon with the eagerly awaited semifinals. It was here that a packed room of visitors got to see firsthand how much the female founders had learned and grown through the past days. Indeed, the pitches were far clearer and the cases stronger from each participant. The air buzzed with energy as each team showcased their projects, vying for a coveted spot in the finals. After hearing the pitches, the judges adjourned to make their difficult decisions while the participants and audience made their way to the Semifinals Reception. 

The Reception provided a much-needed stress release for the founders as they unwound after a week of challenges to their business models and discussions with potential customers. For audience members, this was their first opportunity to meet and talk with the competitors and learn more about the startups. Amidst bites and conversations, connections were forged, ideas exchanged, and the anticipation for the finals heightened. At last the judges emerged and Deputy Assistant Secretary Kandahari announced the five finalists. Representing Philippines, Thailand, Mexico, the United States and Canada, the group were all smiles as they were congratulated by the crowd. 

The Final Stage

Amidst the backdrop of the APEC CEO Summit, the finalists, fellow participants, GIST instructors, and family and friends made their way to the Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco. The enormity of the event was on full display as thousands of Summit participants streamed in and out of the building. As an official event of the National Center for APEC’s Sustainable Future Forum, the Catalyst Finals event took place in the same building as the Annual Luncheon which featured a discussion with Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry. GIST innovators were delighted to be included in the luncheon and many voiced their appreciation for Mr. Kerry’s words.  

At last it was time for GIST’s main event–the Finals. Taking this global stage were the extraordinary finalists, who employed all of the skills they had been refining to their fullest expression, each giving a compelling pitch that showcased their vision for a more sustainable future. They were joined on this stage by U.S. Department of State leadership, including Acting Assistant Secretary Jennifer R. Littlejohn (Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs). She described in her opening remarks a testament that rings more true now than ever before:

“Supporting and highlighting the talent of women entrepreneurs is vitally important as we work towards a sustainable future for us all…If we expect to address the major challenges of our time through scientific discovery and innovation, we need to harness the perspectives and brainpower of the world’s greatest minds.  That means we need more women in STEM fields, including in leadership positions.  Women need to be at the table where science and innovation policy are decided.” 

Assistant Secretary Littlejohn was joined at the event by other key members of Department of State leadership, including Deputy Assistant Secretary for Science, Technology, and Space Affairs Rahima Kandahari, and Ramin Toloui, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, who each echoed the necessity of women-led innovation across APEC, and proudly presented the awards to the finalists. 

Determining who among this extraordinarily deserving cohort would emerge as the winner was the difficult task given to the finalist judges, each leaders in their respective fields. They included Tenika V. Walker, Global Head of Sustainable Futures for Inception at NVIDIA and a leader in AI and technology marketing, and Joanne de Assis, Chairperson of Globe Capital Partners LLC and Senior Advisor to Morgan Stanley. 
Also judging were Keith Loeber, Senior Director of the Student Developer and Entrepreneur Offers and Programs team at Microsoft, as well as Ginger Lew, who has an extensive career as a public policy leader and a successful business executive and entrepreneur who is currently the U.S. delegate to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Business Advisory Council. 

In describing her experience as a judge, Ginger Lew explained, “Adding my vote-this was an inspiring and amazing event. From a culture, business and society perspective, many places do not support women entrepreneurs. They displayed remarkable courage, poise and grit to think outside the box and come up with innovative solutions to real world problems. I applaud each and everyone of them. I spoke to many of the attendees who said it was the highlight of their program day." 

These esteemed judges gathered their collective considerable experience, and together selected the winners. 

In Fifth, Fourth, and Third Place were Mild Karoon-Ngampun (Thailand) of UPCYDE, winning $1500, Mar Velasco (USA) of Netacarbon, winning $7000, and Cherry Murillon (Philippines) of Trace.AI, winning $10,000! 

In Second Place was Roikhanatun Nafi’ah (Indonesia) of Crustea, winning $15,000 for her innovation in developing smart aerators for next-generation aquaculture farming, fostering aquaculture environmental sustainability and deepening food-system resiliency.

Finally, in First Place, was Natalie Duncan (Canada) of Bug Mars AI, a venture working to develop AI software that enhances insect farming efficiency, reducing operational costs and promoting insect-based protein sources for a sustainable food future. She described the experience, saying: 

“The workshops have been helpful, getting out and talking to customers. We are challenging ourselves to speak to new types of customers. This program has been so unique in being able to interface with global leaders. Being an entrepreneur can be lonely, and interfacing with other women can help–it's so fascinating meeting women from all over the world. Winning is tremendous validation for us, showing that there is a market and industry for insect farming in North America and Europe.”

Catalyzing the Future of Science and Technology Innovation

This experience became much more than a week of learning, or just a pitch competition—it was a transformative odyssey for these visionary women founders. From mastering customer development and business model generation to crafting compelling narratives and honing communication skills, their resilience and adaptability radiated throughout the journey. The practical exercises, deep dives, and strategic planning sessions equipped them with a toolkit ready for the dynamic business landscape. The Pitch Semifinals and the Grand Finale at the Sustainable Futures Summit illuminated the extraordinary growth of these female founders, resonating with the powerful words of U.S. Department of State leaders. As we celebrate the remarkable achievements of Mild Karoon-Ngampun, Mar Velasco, Cherry Murillon, Roikhanatun Nafi’ah, and Natalie Duncan, as well as all of the incredible founders we were lucky to support, we not only applaud their awards but herald a future shaped by their pioneering spirit. Beyond the week's end, the impact of these women-led initiatives promises to reshape industries, inspiring a generation of leaders in science, technology, and entrepreneurship. This week may conclude, but the echoes of their endeavors reverberate, propelling us toward a future where diversity, innovation, and sustainability stand as the pillars of progress, beyond APEC and throughout the world. 

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