Big Plans, Big Show, Rice’s Business Plan Contest

Jeff Mullins is a man with a mission. He says he was a patent attorney for seven years to get to know how that works. Then he went back to school, in the MBA program at Carnegie Mellon University, to focus on entrepreneurship. He’s now got the hottest startup I’ve seen in a while, Dynamics, the winner of the big prize at the Rice University Business Plan Contest.

And the big prize is pretty big. It’s hard to piece apart the package between cash and cash equivalents. There’s $20,000 in cash, $80,000 in free services, a $100,000 investment from Opportunity Houston (which is contingent on moving to Houston), and, certainly the real value jackpot, a $125,000 investment from the famed GOOSE Society of Texas.

The GOOSE group — it stands for Grand Order of Successful Entrepreneurs — was formed by Rod Canion, Bob Brockman and four other very well known Texas entrepreneurship giants a few years ago, mainly to invest in the Rice contest winner. It now includes eight members. And past winners have ended up with more than just the investment money promised — mentorship, good advice, and deeper pockets.  They’ve supported past winners with a lot more than just the initial amount.

What Dynamix has is a market-ready credit-card technology that programs the magnetic stripe. It’s compatible with the 60 million existing card swipe readers out in the world, but still manages to manipulate what the stripe shows using buttons the owner pushes. And it’s just about the same size as the standard credit cards everybody now uses.

The flow of awards and prizes Saturday night took two hours (Brad Burke, Director of the Rice Alliance that puts on the show, and master of ceremonies, struggled in Oscar-Awards fashion to keep the talking short. Rumor has it that I was fingered as one of the offenders). Awards began with the $2,500 specialty awards like Palo Alto Software’s, which we give for the best written business plan, ( as in my post here last Friday) and mounted up through a NASA $20,000 life science Innovation Award and a $20,000 Dow Chemical Sustainability award. Total awards, including service equivalents and investment offers, totaled $805,000.

These were very good plans in an excellent business plan contest. Several speakers cited the prize money to lay claim to the biggest and best. Although, in the fine print, the winner also gets a berth in next month’s Moot Corp contest at the University of Texas, which director Rob Adams will tell you is the “Super Bowl” of venture contests, started in 1984, the oldest or at least the most well known (I hate having to miss Moot Corp this year because of a scheduling problem).

As a judge, I struggled with the contest’s insistence on absolute rankings, without ties, because so many plans were so good. Rice got more than 340 entries, which it weeded down to 42 teams for last weekend. By the end of the finals, it seemed to me like most of the finalists were worthy of first place in any normal venture contest. For example:

  • NextRay, which took second place (and also won our best written plan award, and the NASA life sciences award), presented a new technology that may be able to replace X-rays with only one tenth of the radiation. From the University of North Carolina.
  • Tendix Development, representing Johns Hopkins Univeristy, showed the IRIS Engine, a new kind of internal combustion engine promising to deliver more power than what current engines with less than half the energy consumption. It has already won awards from NASA and ConocoPhillips.
  • Integrated Diagnostics, from the University of California at Berkeley, showed a quicker way to test blood for HIV.
  • Audiallo, from the University of Michigan, presented a new technology for processing sound, based on waves rather than digital, that hopes to offer way better clarity for hearing aids, and, later, bluetooth headphones and other uses.
  • In Context Solutions, from the University of Chicago, showed a dazzling 3D store simulation able to perform fast in real time, targeting the high-end market research done for consumer packaged goods companies.
  • Authors of the open-source MODx content management system, a team including students from SMU, is building a company called Enterprise Theory to commercialize MODx support and services and tools, following a Red Hat model. This one, which had one of the best-looking business plans I’ve seen in a while, didn’t even make the finals.

So I’m flying back to Oregon now, as I write this, thinking that the Rice event has become a real winner. Lots of sponsors, lots of judges, and about 350 teams that were eventually paired down to 42. Great plans. I’m already looking forward to next year’s event.


  • Organizing Angel Investors says:

    […] Plan Contest. If you want to read about a very strong field of new ventures, I posted about that on my main blog […]

  • Ryan Thrash says:

    Thanks for the complement Tim. It was an honor and pleasure to speak with you at Rice. Soon you should see MODx, Inc. as the company that offers critical commercial support services for MODx, which businesses are asking of us (Enterprise Theory is being retired). The other businesses at Rice were all amazing and I enjoyed meeting many of the teams … there just wasn’t enough time to talk with everyone.

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