As the GW Business Plan Competition celebrates five years, the contest—and the entrepreneur’s ideas—keep getting bigger.
John Rollins was an adjunct professor in the School of Business when he organized a business plan contest as an extension of his undergraduate entrepreneurship course. Fewer than 100 teams competed for a chance at three prizes totaling $30,000.
In April—just five years later—teams were vying for triple the prize money in front of hundreds of spectators watching their pitches in person, in an overflow room broadcasting a live feed, and in 10 countries via a webcast.
“All eight of the teams that made it to the finals were companies that were very serious—all of them technology, health care, or health related. I’m convinced that all eight are going to do very well,” says Mr. Rollins, who founded the competition in 2009 with support from founding sponsors Rick Scott, who is now governor of Florida, and his wife, Ann. One of the couple’s daughters, Allison Guimard, graduated from the business school in 2005.
This year, the annual contest drew 109 competitors and distributed $90,000 in prizes among seven winning teams. The competition is open to teams of up to four people, at least half of whom must be GW alumni, students, or faculty members with at least one student. An internal panel of GW faculty and staff members narrows the applicant pool to about three dozen business plans to present to entrepreneur judges, who help select eight finalists.
Mr. Rollins says that the judges look for sustainable businesses with long-term prospects. Technology and health care proposals, in particular, have proliferated. For example, five of this year’s eight finalists were enterprises involving health care.
“I think clearly there’s a lot of opportunity in the health-related industries because we have a medical school here, a strong biomedical engineering program, strong natural sciences in Columbian College, the School of Public Health and Health Services, and the School of Nursing,” says Jim Chung, director of GW’s Office of Entrepreneurship, which provides support for the event.
Mr. Chung predicts that future competitions will see more business plans that take advantage of the government as a partner. “I mean not just services to the government,” he says, “but also ideas to use data generated by the government.”
For now, he’s noticed that competitors are “thinking bigger.” These big ideas are supported with educational workshops to learn about marketing research and how to put together a business team, as well as gain insight on raising capital. Companies that make the first cut are assigned mentors, most often alumni entrepreneurs.
“Early on, understandably, when you haven’t had a lot of exposure to the startup world, you think small, you think about what’s close to you,” Mr. Chung says. “As the entrepreneurship program grows, as the students become more aware and interact, their ideas are getting bigger and more ambitious and scalable. And that’s what’s exciting.”
The GW Business Plan Competition has already put several promising ideas on the startup path, providing guidance, contacts, and seed money. Take HealthEworks, the first-place winner in 2010. Three GW physicians came up with the idea of emailing post-care instructions—in video format—to the families of urgent care pediatric patients. The proposal, which faced 111 other entries, survived three elimination rounds over a two-month period to win $20,000.
HealthEworks team members David Mathison, Christina Johns, and Moh Saidinejad are pediatric emergency room doctors. At the time of the competition, Dr. Mathison was also pursuing an MBA at GW.
“For our group—a bunch of nerdy doctors—the competition helped us formalize our idea into a business,” Dr. Mathison says. “It helped us take the business up to the next level.”
The media exposure that came with the prize pushed the team to file for a patent, get trademarks, and incorporate. HealthEworks has since received funding from the National Institutes of Health, the District of Columbia Department of Health, and an asthma clinic. Children’s National Medical Center, where Dr. Mathison and his fellow entrepreneurs work, has also provided support. Recently, HealthEworks partnered with the Verizon Foundation.
“They’re going to add some of their technologies to our platform for delivery on mobile devices,” Dr. Mathison says.
HealthEworks’ growth has been slowed by the fact that its founders are all full-time physicians, but a few hospitals and urgentcare facilities are using some of the startup’s 120 videos, which are available in both English and Spanish.
“We’re going to grow laterally to get into some areas and get research and data,” Dr. Mathison says. “Then we’ll take off vertically and penetrate more facilities.”
The competition dovetails with GW’s new role in a regional Innovation Corps (I-Corps). Earlier this year, with $3.75 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, GW joined the University of Maryland and Virginia Tech in the Mid-Atlantic I-Corps, a technology innovation accelerator program that aims to identify the best entrepreneurial students and faculty researchers and bring their discoveries to market. Dozens of research teams selected by the Mid-Atlantic I-Corps will undergo seven weeks of intense training and mentoring.
A competition entrant last year, Crowdvance has also done well in the year since it earned third place and $4,000. Crowdvance is an online service that helps small nonprofits and other organizations raise funds. Dylan Fox was a junior studying business administration and public policy when he entered the competition.
“I’d just closed down a startup with two frat brothers. Since that company failed, I didn’t have anything to enter in the competition,” Mr. Fox says. “But I knew from the experience that I wanted to be an entrepreneur for the rest of my life. Then out of nowhere, I stumbled on the idea for Crowdvance.”
Crowdvance already had traction when, in April, Mr. Rollins encouraged Mr. Fox and his partners to enter the Texas Christian University Values and Ventures Business Plan Competition, representing GW. They walked away with the $15,000 grand prize. At about the same time, Crowdvance closed a seed round of investment and added to its management team, which now numbers four plus an intern.
“We’re getting ready to go to the moon with this,” Mr. Fox says.
He laughed when he recalled the nailbiting drama of the GW Business Plan Competition. “It was the first time I’d ever written a business plan,” he says. “Basically, it got ripped apart.” Mr. Fox added that competition judges and advisers offered the pivotal advice that set Crowdvance on a fast track.
Among those advisers was Mr. Fox’s mentor, Ed Martinez, a D.C.-based entrepreneur in the technology arena. Mr. Martinez, who has served as both mentor and judge over the past four years, says the program’s growth is evident from the judge’s seat in more ways than one.
“I was very impressed by the methodology they used for judging to ensure that the competition was fair to all the participants. It’s a tremendous process, very structured,” he says.
“Four years ago, when I was invited to join as a judge, the competition was at an interesting stage. It had good competitors and good plans and good ideas,” he says. “But over the past three years, it has gone from good to superb in the quality of competitors and ideas.”
What’s next for the growing GW Business Plan Competition? Breaking the $100,000 mark for prizes.
The 2013 Winners
|Medical Resident Adam Corman and Neal Sikka, an assistant professor of emergency medicine, demonstrate their business idea during their pitch at this year's contest. Their venture, SonoStik, won the first place prize of $25,000 (see below). (Photo by William Atkins.)|
Another one of GW’s business venture events, the Pitch George Elevator Contest, laid the groundwork for SonoStik’s victory in the 2013 GW Business Plan Competition.
Medical resident Adam Corman and Neal Sikka, an assistant professor of emergency medicine, won second place and $1,500 in the pitch contest, sponsored by GW Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence. They took their refined pitch to the GW Business Plan Competition in April, where they won first place and $25,000 for SonoStik, a technology that makes it easier to place difficult intravenous therapy lines, or IVs, and opens the way for doctors to perform emergency ultrasounds at patients’ bedsides.
“The idea came out of our experience working in the emergency room,” Dr. Corman says. “I thought there could be a way to make a business out of the idea.”
Dr. Sikka, who has always been interested in entrepreneurship, says it was a challenge “to organize the concept and put it on paper in a way that is informative, compelling, and concise so that the judges could believe in the idea.” But he figured his and Dr. Corman’s experience talking to patients gave them an edge when it came to the oral presentation. The men also took an ultrasound machine to their presentation to show judges a simulation of how SonoStik works.
SonoStik was one of seven business plans that walked away with money in 2013. The winners’ circle also included a $5,000 prize for the best sustainable technology idea, awarded to Graphene Plasma technology, which would reduce costs in the reinforced plastics industry. Graphene also won $10,000 for second place in the overall competition.
The third-place prize of $4,000 went to BOSS Medical, an early-stage orthopedic medical device company. And a returning contender, Capital Kombucha, which produces a fermented probiotic tea, picked up fourth place—and $1,000.
MemoryBanc earned the $5,000 AARP Foundation award for a business plan focused on the needs of low-income seniors. MemoryBanc software helps dementia patients organize financial and personal assets. And the $10,000 prize for “Best Undergraduate Team” went to Jenda, a company that lets customers check the authenticity of commonly counterfeited items through a cellphone scan. SmartBrush, an app-connected toothbrush with interactive gaming received the $3,000 Audience Choice Award, which is selected by Twitter voting.
The GW Business Plan Competition began with a $30,000 gift from Florida entrepreneurs Ann and Rick Scott, who now occupy the state’s governor’s mansion. Governor Scott was elected to Florida’s highest office in 2011 after a career in law and business. (Their daughter Allison Guimard, BBA ’05, is also an entrepreneur.) With the Scotts as founding sponsors, the annual competition has grown to have a corporate sponsorship list that includes Capital One, Blank Rome LLP, and the AARP Foundation, as well as local companies such as iStrategyLabs and Brazen Careerist.