MEDA Million Dollar Challenge Winners: Where Are They Now?
Aneela Idnani Kumar, HabitAware's co-founder and marketing and design lead. (Photo courtesy of HabitAware)

MEDA Million Dollar Challenge Winners: Where Are They Now?

In late January, the Metropolitan Economic Development Association awarded more than $1.4 million to eight minority-owned startups. We check in with two Minnesota-based winners.

It’s been nearly a year since St. Louis Park-based mental health startup HabitAware took home the top prize in the Metropolitan Economic Development Association’s Million Dollar Challenge for entrepreneurs of color.

The company, which provides wearable technology aimed at curbing obsessive behaviors like hair pulling, has been on the fast-track ever since, says Aneela Idnani Kumar, co-founder and marketing and design lead. As winner of MEDA’s pitch competition, HabitAware in late January took home $400,000, which the company used to help refine and develop “Keen,” its signature product.

The wearable device is designed to vibrate when the wearer engages in repetitive, harmful behaviors, such as hair-pulling or nail-biting.

But Kumar says there’s more to the story than money. Winning the competition has opened up more doors than she’d imagined: In July, for instance, she was invited to speak at a TEDx conference in Fargo. Kumar says the connections she made through MEDA helped make that possible.

“It’s not just the funding,” Kumar says. “It’s also the connections and the community that you build.”

After the Million Dollar Challenge, one of the judges – Allison Barmann of the Bush Foundation – put in a recommendation for Kumar to speak at the TEDx conference.

In the market since 2017, HabitAware’s Keen product is now shipped worldwide, Kumar says. She declined to share revenue or the number of Keen products she’s sold so far. But she says there’s a big market – and need – for the product.

She says nearly 20 million Americans suffer from “body-focused repetitive behaviors” to a debilitating degree. (The technical term for hair-pulling is “trichotillomania.”)

“It’s a huge problem. And just because of that shame, no one was talking about it,” says Kumar. “Now, people are starting to come out to share their stories in the same way we’ve seen celebrities talk about bipolar and depression in recent years.”

Kumar is among those sharing her story: She suffered from hair-pulling for years. That led her to begin developing the product with her husband, Sameer.

Kumar says MEDA helped her tighten HabitAware’s story, too. The organization put her in touch with Minneapolis ad agency KNOCK Inc., which “helped us up our game in terms of creative presentation,” she says.

More Minnesota Winners

In total, MEDA awarded more than $1.4 million to nine winners in the 2018 competition. The contest drew interest from more than 200 companies across the country.

Minneapolis-based nightlife platform Vemos Inc. was among the 2018 finalists from Minnesota. Vemos took home $200,000 – a sum that’s helped the company “grow pretty substantially,” says director Parag Shah.

Vemos director Parag Shah (right) and his business partner Whitney Larson.

Part of the winnings went toward hiring full-time staff in sales and marketing and software development. The company also used some funds to purchase advertising, Shah says.

Vemos’ platform crunches customer data to help bars and clubs grow their business, according to Shah.

In January 2018 – a year before the company participated in the Million Dollar Challenge – the company had just shy of 300 accounts. As of August this year, Vemos has nearly 1,000 accounts under its belt.

The startup saw its biggest jump in new accounts back in June, when Vemos added 124 new customers, according to Shah.

Like HabitAware’s Kumar, Shah credited MEDA with making the right connections to grow his business. The organization’s leaders and judges also served as sounding boards as he further refined his pitch.

“For me, primarily, it was really helpful to hone in on our true value proposition – getting people to understand what we were building,” he says. “We had a great adviser to bounce ideas off.”

Vemos now counts bars, restaurants, and venues across the country among its customer base. Icehouse, a restaurant and performance venue on Minneapolis’ Eat Street, is one of Vemos’ Minnesota customers.

Owner Brian Liebeck says he first met the Vemos team at a gala a number of years ago. Icehouse has now been a customer for about three years, Liebeck says.

“We’ve had a great partnership,” he says. “It’s nice to have more data surrounding customers.”

Meanwhile, MEDA’s second Million Dollar Challenge is already underway. Earlier this summer, 22 semifinalists made their pitches to a panel of 20 judges. The list has been narrowed down to 10 finalists, six of which are from Minnesota companies.

MEDA will host a final pitch event on Oct. 11, which will coincide with Twin Cities Startup Week.