Eleven Black-owned businesses from all over North America competed in Friday’s Demo Day for the Black Founders Exchange. The only Triangle-based startup won.
Durham’s Courtroom5, an online case-management platform for people representing themselves in civil court proceedings, won an all-expenses-paid trip for two to the San Francisco Bay Area to meet with potential investors and partners for taking home top honors. The Demo Day capped the Black Founders Exchange, a one-week intensive business-building program for Black founders hosted by Durham’s American Underground and Google for Startups.
Competitors were given just three minutes to pitch their companies to a packed crowd of investors, alumni and supporters in Durham’s Carolina Theater. Then, they came under the scrutiny of the four judges—Black entrepreneurs and investors from across the country.
Sonja Ebron, the CEO of Courtroom5, said she and her co-founder, Debra Slone, were inspired to create their platform after representing themselves in civil court and being denied justice. They soon realized they were not alone. There are 20 million people who represent themselves in civil court every day, Ebron said. Many of these “pro se” litigants—the official legal term for representing one’s self—lose.
“It’s not a fair fight,” she said in her pitch. “And as a result, people in court without lawyers are routinely denied the right to be heard in court.”
Since Ebron and Slone both have doctorates—in electrical engineering and library sciences, respectively—the next time they went to court they were able to prepare themselves with the knowledge available on the internet, and won. However, they knew this was not the case for most people who are dragged into court without a lawyer.
Their solution is a $25/month subscription to Courtroom5. With a membership, users get access to the Litigator’s Toolset, a wide range of digital equipment to help clients win a case, from a legally tailored search engine to videos that train clients on how to represent themselves in court.
It’s already been a big summer for Courtroom 5. It recently participated in the Duke Law Tech Lab—also winning its Demo Day contest—and has been picked to participate in the prestigious LexisNexis Legal Tech Accelerator.
One of the Demo Day judges, Ollen Douglas, the managing director of Virginia-based Motley Ford Ventures, said Courtroom5 stood out because of its commitment to tackling injustice.
“We were particularly impressed with their presentation addressing a critical need in the criminal justice system,” Douglas said. “I think they had an immersive approach for dealing with this systemic problem.”
Courtroom5 has about 1,200 users, and it is currently testing its third beta version. It is asking for $500K in seed funding to help better provide, as the company puts it, “access to justice for the rest of us.”
Courtroom5 is the second Durham-based company to take the gold at the Black Founders Exchange in as many years. In attendance was last year’s Demo Day winner—Reginald Parker, the CEO of Optimal Solar, a Durham-based startup that produces solar energy technology (read more about its win last year here). He said his week at the Black Founders Exchange was instrumental to his understanding of “value proposition” and how to pitch his company.
Since winning the competition, Parker said he has built instrumental relationships across the country, and now Optimal Solar has enough of a following to launch a planned equity crowdfunding campaign.
Two other companies also received honorable mentions from the judges. Meter Feeder, based in Pittsburgh, offers a mobile-based parking meter for modern cities that will soon be able to accommodate autonomous vehicles; while New York-based Hued is a platform that connects patients of color with doctors of color.
Ebron said it was a privilege to connect with so many founders across the country, and it is amazing that Durham is where those relationships were made.
“There were so many great companies in this cohort,” Ebron said. “We really had no expectation of winning, but we really feel a great deal of affirmation. Just the attention that the lack of access to justice is getting is heart-warming for us.”