A wearable fitness tracker and an app that allows you to play fetch with Fido from afar were no match for the VaGenie — which literally turns Kegels into a game — at this year’s Pittsburgh-based International Hardware Cup.
At AlphaLab Gear in East Liberty on Wednesday night, the VaGenie was crowned winner, earning $50,000 in investment funds and other prizes, including a trophy made at TechShop.
The AlphaLab Gear International Hardware Cup started three years ago with a handful of cities and has grown to be one of the largest competitions in the world for early stage companies, Ilana Diamond, managing director of AlphaLab Gear, said as the competition began. For 2017, the final contest — yes, held in Pittsburgh — featured winners from seven regional contests in the U.S. and international contests in Canada, India, Israel, Japan and South Korea.
Atlas Wristband, a wearable device designed by the South Regional winner that’s “like a GPS for health and fitness,” placed second, winning $5,000. PlayDate, from the Southeast Regional, earned $3,000 for taking the third spot. The company created a robotic toy that pet owners can control from their cell phones to play with their cat or dog from afar.
All three beat out Pittsburgh-based Rubitection Inc., winner of the Mid-Atlantic Regional. The handheld device aims for early detection of bedsores and the companion software aids with patient care. All of the competitors, as well as several local companies, get to meet with potential investors Friday.
Hardware Cup champion Julia Rose said she picked a “cheeky” name for her company on purpose.
Rose told judges that she plans to infuse humor with women’s health to sell the VaGenie. Events like “VaGenie Martini” gatherings encourage women to talk about the product, which allows women to play games by doing Kegels and learn proper techniques to strengthen their pelvic floor and prevent a variety of health issues — such as lower back pain and organ prolapse — while tracking their progress. Its website urges “thinking inside the box” and to “exercise your inner strength.”
Rose, a mother of two from Los Angeles, said in the last two years that’s she’s been working on the VaGenie, she’s noticed a cultural shift toward raising awareness of women’s health issues. She said she was inspired to create the VaGenie after receiving postpartum strengthening care when she gave birth to her son in France.
Rose learned about the contest from a hardware startup group called Make in LA and entered the West Coast regional. There aren’t many hardware competitions, especially of this caliber, she said — and her competitors agreed.
A lot of the time, competitions are focused on software, which has different problems than hardware, said Ryan Wright, of Somerville, Mass. His company, WrightGrid, makes a solar-powered device that allows people in African countries to access wifi, charge their cell phones and use an ATM.
Alexa Roeper, of Waterloo, Ontario, told The Incline she wanted to come to the Pittsburgh competition because of the connections she could build with companies here like Bayer. Roeper’s company, Penta Medical makes a wearable device that helps treat soft tissue injuries.
The popularity of hardware companies — aka companies that have a physical product — is growing, Rich Lunak, president and CEO of Innovation Works, said during the presentations.
“Hardware companies are definitely having their day in the sun,” he said.
Pittsburgh has a long history of hardware companies and making things, Lunak said, adding that expanding the contest to be international means it attracts not only better teams, but better sponsors and investors.
“It’s a global stage,” he said.
For Rose, winning the Hardware Cup gives her the funding to finish VaGenie product development with the goal of having it on the market in February 2018. But it also built her network.
“I’m so happy to be connected to the Pittsburgh startup community,” Rose said, adding that the community has a feeling of vision, commitment and support for its companies.
“That can get lost in places like Silicon Valley.”