Lots of innovators fail because they don't know how to take their ideas from drawing board to marketplace. Some business plan competitions address this problem for students from the region's higher education institutions by providing much-needed advice, mentoring, technical assistance and cash. And, for those students whose ideas don't win, success often lies in the clarity of thought and confidence that's learned along the way.
University of Akron senior Jason King learned how to give presentations in layman's terms by competing in (and winning) this year's LaunchTown Entrepreneurship Awards, which draws student teams from all over Northeast Ohio. "I was so involved in research, I thought my technical information was evident to everybody," said King. But it wasn't. King and his teammates at Telkesis, Esra Cipa, Laura Vondeak and Margaret Brass took home the $10,000 grand prize (and $20,000 worth of consultation services) after being coached to use plain English to "sell" their medical device to a panel of investors, entrepreneurs and academicians during the competition. Their device takes the shock out of spinal implant surgery.
"Your audience has to understand your idea enough to be drawn in," confirmed Anthony Margida, director of Entrepreneurial Services at the Akron Global Business Accelerator and a LaunchTown leader. "Just about everybody knows somebody who's had spinal surgery. We told the team to make people curious about their device by explaining what each screw does."
The Telkesis team plans to stick together after graduation (and graduate school) to develop their products. King plans to use his team's winnings to help pay for Food and Drug Administration review to get their first product to market. That's a thrill for Prof. Ajay Mahajan, who advised Telkesis. "I'm an academician, but I've also started a company. I've experienced how important and gratifying it is to take a product from the lab to the market."
"Entrepreneurs also can use emotion to connect with business plan judges," said Mike Lisavich, program manager for 10x-celerator New Venture Accelerator. The Fisher College of Business program at Ohio State University uses a business plan competition to pick its classes of ten high-potential technology companies for ten-week product development "boot camps."
"It's not necessarily what the entrepreneurs have accomplished that makes them successful, but what their business is, how it connects with people, why the business is unique," said Lisavich, an MBA graduate assistant at the Fisher School.
Feedback, advice and mentoring for students also are hallmarks of business plan competitions. At ideaLabs, the annual business plan competition run by the Entrepreneurship Education Consortium (EEC), "every student gets feedback" on concept papers and presentations used to pick winners, said Kay Molkentin, co-director of Integrated Entrepreneurship Programs at Hiram College, one of nine universities in the ideaLabs consortium.
Student teams are vetted at their own universities before going to ideaLabs. At Hiram early this year, 52 students answered 17 questions in concept papers, which were judged. before announcing the three finalists. Students got advice from faculty and staff, and they learned how to validate their ideas through research and analysis.
Finalists prepare eight-minute presentations to compete for the chance to compete at ideaLabs. Students gain pluck, poise and tenacity through the process. Even if they don't launch their ideas or go on to become entrepreneurs, "They feel better prepared to start job hunts," Molkentin said. EEC also runs a summer immersion program during which students spend an entire week eating, sleeping and talking their ideas.
This year, Nicholas Barron, a mathematics and physics major at Case Western Reserve University, and his team landed the top prize with his Pothole Patch - a "non-Newtonian fluid" that becomes rigid when pressure is applied. "I think it energizes any student who participates in the competition. They come out of the competitions thinking, 'I can do this!'" Molkentin said.
Students also come out of business plan competitions with real ideas and contacts. Four years ago, CitizenGroove won a joint competition with EEC and Shaker LaunchHouse. The competition helped attract North Coast Angel Fund, which invested in CitizenGroove.
ADAP Nanotech was a finalist at last year's TiE Quest - the business plan competition of TiE Ohio, part of the network of The International Entrepreneurs, said Réka Barabás, executive director. This year, JumpStart Inc. invested $250,000 to help ADAP start pilot production of its gecko-like adhesive.
And the 10-xelerator's 19 graduating companies, which received $20,000 apiece from the Ohio Third Frontier's ONE Fund to support business and living expenses during their program, have pulled in an additional $4 million or $5 million in investments. "We're creating sustainable businesses and building entrepreneurial leaders in our community," Lisavich said. "I wish I had a chance seven years ago as an undergrad to participate in the program."
Cathy Belk is the Chief Relationship Officer of JumpStart. She specializes in branding, marketing communications, and business and relationship management. She brings 16+ years of experience in a variety of marketing and business roles, but gets her energy from working daily with entrepreneurs and their growing companies.