Last week I spent three days in Houston as a judge of the Rice Business Plan Competition. I haven’t been home since I left April 7 to judge the University of Oregon’s New Venture Championship.
Both of these competitions include four components: the business plan, the business pitch, the responses to questions, and the elevator speech. Every team has at least one MBA student, most of them are all MBA students. The winners get a lot of money.
Rice is the richest. Last Saturday night they distributed $1.3 million in investments, services, and cash awards. Some of that, however, involves investment for equity, or conditions like moving to Houston.
Judging these contests is fun. You read business plans, then listen to the entrepreneurs pitch the plan with slides and demos, followed by questions and answers. Later, you give them feedback. The hardest part, at least this year, is that you have to rank the teams and choose winners.
Here are my 10 reflections:
- A great ending: The Rice contest was a $1.1 million contest until the absolute last minute, the last presentation in the awards banquet, when the Texas GOOSE (grand order of successful entrepreneurs) doubled its investment in the winner, from $150K to $300K. The GOOSE society is a phenomenon in itself, worth another post here. I couldn’t find a good link to it to share here, but among the names I recognize are Rod Canion, co-founder of Compaq Computers, and Bob Brockman, who gave the award on Saturday. Right there, with the winners on the stage, they took a marker and, writing by hand, doubled the amount on the check.
- A good response to feedback: Clearbrook Imaging, a team from the University of Texas, has a product in its early stages that could, if it works and gets into the hands of doctors, make some kinds of heart surgery much safer. Unfortunately they’ve also got a thick, turbid business plan, and a slow-paced presentation. The underlying product/market fit looks so good my group of judges passes them onto the finals before lunch, then coaches them, in the afternoon, on how to turn their pitch around on empathy and stories and plot. The next day they win the Oregon contest.
- Mixed feelings: Innovators from The Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur has a way to rig some plastic together to filter water in villages without using electric power, for $6 a unit, to reduce the horrifying death toll of water-borne preventable diseases among India’s rural poor. They didn’t make the semifinals. It’s hard to compare plans offering frills in a consumer market to plans that offer real improvements in health and life for people living in poverty.
- Disappointing: The financial projections for a lot of the plans had horribly unrealistic profitability and little or no sense of cash flow. I’m surprised at how many strong teams had flawed financials. Good news: except for the flawed financials, the business plans are getting better than ever. These are exciting new companies with strong markets and excellent teams behind them. And flawed financials are not fatal flaws.
- Growth and change: business plan competitions started in 1984 with the University of Texas’ Moot Corp, now called Venture Labs. They were originally a lot like that name, moot, hypothetical, academic exercises in mock businesses. These days the vast majority of these plans are real, with real prospects, real value, and real likelihood of launching. Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance that puts on the competition, says since they started in 2001 they’ve had 116 teams launch businesses, which raised $337 million in venture capital.
- Four for four: For my flight at the Oregon contest I reviewed four plans. All four were believable, launchable businesses.
- Six for six: For my flight at Rice I reviewed six plans. Two were a bit early, but promising. Four were real.
- Disproportionately male: It’s getting better these days, but it’s still true that judges and competitors are maybe 80 percent male. There’s no good reason for that. I hope it changes fast. And for more good news on this front, the winning team, TNG Pharmaceuticals, was led by CEO Jenny Corbin, and two others of the six finalist teams included strong women. Priyanka Bakaya of MIT and PK Clean, another finalist, won the $10,000 nCourage Courageous Women Entrepreneur Prize. And Priscilla Silva had the main speaking part for Cyclewood Plastics, of the University of Arkansas, another of the six finalists.
- Meanwhile, back in the real world: QRCodeCity, one of the plans I reviewed for Rice, had started in January with an iPhone app called “Scan.” When the Rice contest started in had been downloaded more than 250,000 times. Three days later, at the awards banquet, it had been downloaded more than 300,000 times. They didn’t make the finals.
- Toughest finals ever: The Rice event included 42 teams chosen from more than 150 applications. They filtered them down to six teams for the finals. It was incredibly hard to choose between those six. Any one of them could have won. One of my favorites fell behind only because they hadn’t signed the technology license agreement. The team that won, TNG Pharmaceuticals from the University of Louisville, which has vaccine to relieve cattle of fly infestations, was fabulous. But so were the five other finalists.
I’m not done with this subject. In two weeks I do it again for the University of Texas’ Venture Labs, formerly Moot Corp, the oldest and maybe still the best known of these contests. Venture Labs gets the winners of several dozen other contests.
Tim, it sounds like a fascinating process and great prospects for future businesses. Wish I could have been a fly on the wall to see how these teams pitch themselves and their ideas.