Entrepreneurship is alive and well in our nation's universities. Just take a look at the growing list of business plan competitions that are hosted (at no small cost) by leading universities nationwide. Graduate students-not just MBA students, but student scientists, engineers, medical doctors and others-spend hundreds of hours preparing business plans and presentations in the hope of getting a chance to compete at one or more of these student entrepreneur events.
Why are these contests so popular? Yes, there is prize money-cash prizes often total $25,000 to $50,000 or more. Some contests award equity funding of up to $100,000 (such as the MOOT CORP at the University of Texas at Austin). But these amounts, while generous, are seldom enough to finance high-growth or even modest-growth enterprises.
Student entrepreneurs involved in the contests learn lessons from the experience and feedback. If you closely monitor the circuit of contests, you'll no doubt see some of the same teams competing in two, three or even more of these contests, sometimes over two or more academic years. If practice does not make perfect, it at least irons out some of the kinks. In fact, many students say they learn more preparing for and participating in a business plan competition than during an entire MBA program.
There is also the exposure to new business investors, like venture capitalists and angel investors, as well as successful entrepreneurs and executives that comes from running the circuit of these competitions. In some of these contests, student entrepreneurs can pitch their plan to literally dozens of venture capitalists in a single weekend. Ask any entrepreneur seeking millions in venture capital how valuable that opportunity is.
Whatever the motive or combination of motives, student entrepreneurs have been flocking to compete in business plan competitions around the country. While many universities have contests for their own students, a growing number of universities now host "open competitions." These competitions are open to currently enrolled students from any accredited university. As more of these open competitions have come online, a circuit, for lack of a better term, has taken shape. In fact, many of the open contests cooperate in a league of sorts, where the winning teams of some contests earn an automatic berth into later contests. The MOOT CORP Contest at the University of Texas at Austin (directed by Professor Gary Cadenhead) is the recognized chair of the league and also leads a consensus on the eligibility criteria for participation (among associated contest directors at other universities). Consistent eligibility criteria are critical to preserve the fairness and student/collegial nature of these events.
Primarily held in the spring (March through May), university business plan competitions receive many times more applications to compete than there are spots available. Thus, these contests have become very competitive, and doing well or even participating in them has become a badge of honor for the students involved and the universities they represent.
Here, we've listed most of the U.S. open competitions, along with a brief description and contact information. Most of the contests are principally for graduate students, but several (such as Ball State University) cater to undergraduate students. Again, the eligibility criteria are determined by each university (although sometimes coordinated among universities), so please check the individual university website or contact person from each contest to determine current guidelines.
|Babcock Elevator Pitch Competition||Wake Forest University||,|
|Contestants give elevator pitch of business plan while riding elevator.||Travel subsidies and potential equity funding|
|Enterprise Creation Competition||Ball State University|
|Undergraduate student contest||$13,000 in cash prizes|
|Georgia Bowl||University of Georgia||Primarily for Southeastern universities||Feedback, exposure and bragging rights|
|IBK Capital Ivey Business Plan Competition||University of Western Ontario||,|
|Open to Canadian graduate students||$30,000 in cash prizes|
|Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan Competition||Singapore Management University|
|Undergraduate student contest||$75,000 in cash prizes|
|McGinnis Venture Competition||Carnegie Mellon University||,|
|Competition revolves around new technologies.||$30,000 first place prize|
|MOOT CORP||University of Texasat Austin||Gary M. Cadenhead and|
|Most contestants have won other competitions to qualify for MOOT CORP.||$100,000 in equity funding offers|
|NU Venture Competitions||University of Nebraska|
|Separate categories for graduate and undergraduate students||$17,500 in prizes|
|New Venture Championship||University of Oregon||Randy Swangard and ,|
|Emphasizes learning and feedback.||$65,000 in cash prizes|
|Northwest VentureChampionship||Boise State University|
|Separate categories for graduate and undergraduate students||$20,000 in cash prizes|
|OFC Venture Challenge||Clark Atlanta University|
|Primarily for Southeastern universities||$22,000|
|Queen's Entrepreneurs' Competition||Queen's University School of Business|
|Student-run; international contestants||Top prize is $5,000|
|Rice Business Plan Competition||Rice University||Brad Burke and|
|Features many investor and entrepreneur judges.||$100,000 in cash prizes and potential funding|
|Spirit of Enterprise MBA Business Plan Competition||Indiana University||Marc Dollinger and|
|Primarily for Midwest universities||Feedback, exposure and bragging rights|
|National Social Venture Competition||U.C. Berkeley and Columbia University, London Business School, Goldman Sachs Foundation||Jerome S. Engel and|
|Contestant plans must have positive social implications.||Access to network of social enterprise investors|
|University of San Francisco International Business Plan Competition||University of San Francisco|
|Features many Silicon Valley venture capitalist judges.||$25,000 in cash prizes and lodging subsidies, and potential funding|
|Venture Adventure||Colorado State University|
|Undergraduate student contest||$15,000 in prizes and travel support|
|Venture Challenge||San Diego State University||Alex DeNoble and|
|Has a 15-year history||$21,000 in cash prizes|
In addition to university-sponsored business plan competitions, several business organizations host business plan competitions just for university students. These include:
|Jungle Business Plan Challenge||Jungle Media Group|
|For MBA students||$45,000 in cash and services|
|S.E.E.D. Business Plan Competition||TechKnowledge Point Corp.|
|Strong media coverage||$17,500 in cash prizes|
|Venture Bowl||National Institute for Entrepreneurship and Carrot Capital|
|Richest business plan competition||$1 million in equity funding offers to top teams|
Even if you're not a current student, you may still be able to participate as part of a team that has current students on it. Contact your local university business school or entrepreneurship program and ask how you can be involved. These contests also use judges and sponsors from the local community, so you can support entrepreneurship in your area by supporting these events.
Mark V. Cannice, Ph.D., is associate professor of entrepreneurship and director of the USF Entrepreneurship Programat the University of San Francisco School of Business and Management.