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Getting In on the University Business Plan Competition Circuit

Entering a business plan contest could be your ticket to success. We've got the scoop on 21 popular competitions nationwide--read on to find the right one for you.
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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.

CompetitionHost UniversityDirector/Contact/WebsiteEligibility/FeaturesPrizes/Support
Babcock Elevator Pitch CompetitionWake Forest University,
Contestants give elevator pitch of business plan while riding elevator.Travel subsidies and potential equity funding
Enterprise Creation CompetitionBall State University
Undergraduate student contest$13,000 in cash prizes
Georgia BowlUniversity of GeorgiaPrimarily for Southeastern universitiesFeedback, exposure and bragging rights
IBK Capital Ivey Business Plan CompetitionUniversity of Western Ontario,
Open to Canadian graduate students$30,000 in cash prizes
Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan CompetitionSingapore Management University
Undergraduate student contest$75,000 in cash prizes
McGinnis Venture CompetitionCarnegie Mellon University,
Competition revolves around new technologies.$30,000 first place prize
MOOT CORPUniversity of Texasat AustinGary M. Cadenhead and
Most contestants have won other competitions to qualify for MOOT CORP.$100,000 in equity funding offers
NU Venture CompetitionsUniversity of Nebraska
Separate categories for graduate and undergraduate students$17,500 in prizes
New Venture ChampionshipUniversity of OregonRandy Swangard and ,
Emphasizes learning and feedback.$65,000 in cash prizes
Northwest VentureChampionshipBoise State University
Separate categories for graduate and undergraduate students$20,000 in cash prizes
OFC Venture ChallengeClark Atlanta University
Primarily for Southeastern universities$22,000
Queen's Entrepreneurs' CompetitionQueen's University School of Business
Student-run; international contestantsTop prize is $5,000
Rice Business Plan CompetitionRice UniversityBrad Burke and
Features many investor and entrepreneur judges.$100,000 in cash prizes and potential funding
Spirit of Enterprise MBA Business Plan CompetitionIndiana UniversityMarc Dollinger and
Primarily for Midwest universitiesFeedback, exposure and bragging rights
National Social Venture CompetitionU.C. Berkeley and Columbia University, London Business School, Goldman Sachs FoundationJerome S. Engel and
Contestant plans must have positive social implications.Access to network of social enterprise investors
University of San Francisco International Business Plan CompetitionUniversity of San Francisco
Features many Silicon Valley venture capitalist judges.$25,000 in cash prizes and lodging subsidies, and potential funding
Venture AdventureColorado State University
Undergraduate student contest$15,000 in prizes and travel support
Venture ChallengeSan Diego State UniversityAlex 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:

CompetitionBusiness SponsorDirector/Contact/WebsiteFeaturesPrizes/Support
Jungle Business Plan ChallengeJungle Media Group
For MBA students$45,000 in cash and services
S.E.E.D. Business Plan CompetitionTechKnowledge Point Corp.
Strong media coverage$17,500 in cash prizes
Venture BowlNational 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.

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