Times have changed since five years ago, when almost every contestant in the Wharton Business Plan Competition at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School was an Internet firm. This year, the watchword is "diversity," says Nicole Righini, associate director of entrepreneurial programs at Wharton. Among tech and energy-related companies, the 2003 winner was a pet health insurance business. Chris Ashton, 30, Natasha Ashton, 29, Laura Bennett, 37, and Alex Krooglik, 30, won $20,000 in start-up capital.
The fact that the Ashtons came from a personal standpoint helped-Chris and wife Natasha got the idea for the company when their cat, Bodey, fell ill in 2001. "We took her to the vet hospital-it was expensive," recalls Chris. After paying large out-of-pocket costs, the couple looked for the pet insurance that was easily available in England, their homeland, but wasn't as easy to find in the States.
The pair, students at Wharton, met up with Bennett, who had insurance experience, and Krooglik, who knew the technical side of a start-up. "We'd done surveys of pet owners and their needs," says Chris. "We collected over 2,000 responses to our first survey, so we had a strong assessment of what people wanted." They also got data from veterinary clinics to come up with a pricing plan.
It was the comprehensive business plan that helped set them apart from the competition, says Righini: "They'd given their business and marketplace a great deal of thought. They came up with a novel idea, and they were able to support it with their financials."
Righini notes the year was so competitive the judges went well over the allotted time to choose a winner. "I think this year is the best competition we've ever had," she says. "I don't think we've had such a rich mix of business ideas. The quality of these business plans is better than it ever has been before."
Chris hopes to launch the company (which has yet to be formally named) in January 2004. When asked about starting a company in difficult economic times, Chris responds with the air of a seasoned entrepreneur: "There are challenges, but if you can get the business sorted now, it's as good a time as any to get things up and running."