Last week I had the opportunity to serve as a judge for the North American "Get in the Ring" pitch competition--a worldwide event in which startups face-off against each other in one-on-one pitching battles. This year, the Kauffman Foundation hosted the top 15 startups (five each from Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.) to square off in Kansas City, Missouri.

Each startup had just four 25-second segments to make the pitch. What struck me was how each entrepreneur effectively nailed key elements required to be a standout startup. Here were a few notable examples.

1. Identify a big problem and develop a unique solution

Americans will spend more than $50 billion on their dogs this year. As much as we owners love our dogs, there is one problem: we're essentially guessing on how our four-legged friends are doing. Kansas City-based Fitbark has an app (and canine-friendly collar) for that. Finalist, fan favorite and Fitbark CEO Davide Rossi created an activity tracker that monitors dogs' health and detects when a dog is sick or not getting enough exercise. The data can be shared with a vet or trainer. 

In the human world, surgeons are increasingly relying on 2-D tools during surgery. This is a problem because surgeons are trained to rely on their hands--that tactile sensation--to identify sensitive tissues, especially blood vessels. But since so many doctors are using minimally-invasive surgical instruments these days, they never really have the chance to use their hands as discovery tools. That means over six million patients are at risk during their procedures each year.

Enter Briteseed's first product, SafeSnips. "SafeSnips is a vessel imaging system that can be integrated into existing minimally invasive surgical tools," says company co-founder Mayank Vijay. SafeSnips alerts the surgeon, in real-time, to the presence of hidden blood vessels in order to prevent accidental cuts or lacerations." The result is reduced medical costs and more importantly, lives saved.

2. Solving problems on a massive scale

Given the significant advances in medicine, it's surprising that health care professionals are still using outdated methods to collect blood samples for testing. If you're sick, elderly, or living in a rural village in Africa, going to a hospital to give a blood sample is impractical or impossible. A product from Spot on Sciences, HemaSpot, solves this problem. HemaSpot is a device that allows a blood sample to be taken at home by a finger stick and shipped to a test site. "HemaSpot is being used to detect diabetes in remote Scottish Isles, Wellness testing in the U.S., HIV in Africa, even assessing the health of snow leopards in Himalayas!" said Spot On Sciences founder and CEO Jeanette Hill, who won the North America competition and will head to the final round in the Netherlands later this month.

Health care is not the only issue affecting the planet. Nearly a billion children around the world lack anything close to a quality education. "Get in the Ring" finalist Tariq Fancy created the Rumie Initiative to give these kids something most take for granted--access. The nonprofit offers $5,000 worth of free education content to children in isolated or underserved communities on $50 tablets. Next year, The Rumie Initiative aims to deliver 25,000 tablets in over 20 countries. Says Fancy, "When we approach NGOs, we ask them what would they rather buy: One textbook, or a full library?"

3. Find a magnetic, self-aware founder

The power of an idea is only made possible by the power of an effective entrepreneur. Semi-finalist Juan Jose Mora, the CEO and co-founder of Atlantia Search, was one of the most charismatic presenters of the week. His company helps people make better decisions through expert analytical reports. Click here (2:05:42) and listen how he describes his team in less than 25 seconds. His passion is just one of the reasons the company enjoys a whopping 94 percent customer satisfaction rate.

Speaking of charisma, Pablo Pedrejn Garca, co-CEO of Petsy.mx, is not just another e-commerce leader. Petsy sells pet supplies online in Mexico. What makes this company a stand out is Garca's passion and lead-by-example approach for putting customer service in the DNA of the company. This, according to Garcia, is how the company has built trust with its consumers and is why The Next Web named Petsy the best startup in Mexico. Click here (1:58:30) to check out Garca's take on how he builds consumer trust.

Being a CEO can be a lonely job. The most effective founders are able to learn from their mistakes, integrate, and make their story--and their startup--better. Asif Khan, CEO of Maietic, a die and surface casting company, described his company during the 25-second semifinal pitch only to be asked by a judge, "I don't get it. What does your company do again?"

The next day, Khan received feedback from other judges, including coaching pitching expert Nathan Gold. During the final rounds, Khan nailed it. You can watch his pitch here (35:25)

You can learn more about all of the North American semifinal and finalist startups here: The global finals will take place November 21,2014 and will be livestreamed.

Published on: Nov 13, 2014